You might think the North Broward Hospital District would be at least moderately thrifty, especially since it keeps raising our property taxes to help fund its monstrous $800 million budget.
But then, you'd be wrong.
A look at an unauthorized Internet database of NBHD's expenses provides strong evidence that the district is acting just like one of those highfalutin, Medicaid-scamming private companies. The site's creator, who asks to remain anonymous, invited me to visit the database (www.pubrec.com) a few weeks ago. There, I pored over thousands of invoices charged by the district, its employees, and Gov. Jeb Bush-appointed commissioners from January 2001 through June 2003. What follows are a few of the more memorable findings in my hours -- OK, days -- of searching the site:
109,742 -- Number of dollars the district spent on brunches, parties, banquets, and golf outings at four local country clubs (Weston Hills, Crystal Lake, Woodmont, and Palm Aire).
30 -- Number of months it took for district employees to pile up some $1.25 million in hotel and banquet-hall expenses at five-star, $200-plus-a-night joints around the country, including the Ritz Carlton, the MGM Grand and Venetian in Las Vegas, the Four Seasons, St. Regis Hotel (must have been nice, Commissioner John D. Collins), the Breakers in Palm Beach, and Wayne Huizenga's posh Boca Resort and Club. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent at hotels locally, often for rooms occupied by district employees. How is this legal? Well, district employees and commissioners don't have to abide by government per diem rates, which in Broward County allow for a maximum of $89 for nightly lodging and $42 for meals and incidentals.
46 -- Number of miles between Commissioner Cora Braynon's Lauderhill house and the Breakers, where she spent four nights and 1,227 district dollars to attend a health care seminar in December 2002. When asked why she couldn't have just driven to West Palm Beach or stayed at a place that didn't cost $300 a night, Braynon responded: "I'm going to get up and get to a meeting at 8 in the morning? No way. At that time, the highway was under construction. You try it."
5 -- Number of meals charged by Broward General Medical Center CEO Joe Scott that exceeded $200. Scott expensed some $25,000 -- more than the district's other three hospital CEOs combined. Included was a $328 breakfast, dinners for $937 and $1,713.95, and a $285.79 charge for a "lunch/golf" outing.
3,637 -- The number of movie tickets purchased by the district for employees. The district gave Muvico $18,186.50 for tickets at a group rate of $5 a pop. Apparently, NBHD isn't paying its people enough (except CEO Wil Trower, who was recently blessed with a $200,000 raise in pay to $600,000).
12,148 -- Number of $25 taxi rides that could have been taken with the $303,695.94 -- averaging $10,123 a month -- spent on cab companies Town Taxi and B & L Service.
3,500 -- Number of dollars the district gave in sponsorships to Pine Crest School, the most elite private school in Broward County.
1,720 -- Number of Maxfli balls that could have been purchased -- along with a $100 putter -- with the $2,250 that NBHD paid for partner Nova Southeastern University's "golf balls and putter" on May 19, 2003.
6 -- The number of companies that received a chunk of the $237,343.72 spent on trophies, plaques, awards, ribbons, and banners.
4 -- Number of public/private charter schools that received a total of $28,148.98 from the taxing district, including Jeb Bush's Liberty City Charter School in Miami (which, incidentally, isn't in Broward County) and the Charter School of Excellence, which is owned by former NBHD commission Chairman Hamilton Forman.
1 -- Number of counties away from Broward in which the PGA's Honda Classic golf tournament is held. Despite the fact that it's in Palm Beach County, the district has poured some $22,339 into the tourney for booths, sponsorships, and "hospitality" during 2001 and 2002. In continuing the NBHD's love affair with all things golf, it also spent $26,367 at the PGA Resort in Palm Beach County.
250,000 -- The approximate number of dollars given annually to area chambers of commerce, the Broward Alliance, Leadership Broward, and other schmoozing organizations. Included here is $35,460 given to the Florida Sterling Council, a "public/private" organization overseen by Bush.
61 -- Cost of each Universal Studios admission ticket bought in Orlando during the spring of 2002. The total came to $4,190. Four employees also charged a total of $3,340 at Walt Disney World. At least another $17,000 was spent on hotel rooms.
1,500 -- Number of dollars given to Westminster Academy, a private Christian school run by the controversial, gay-bashing Rev. D. James Kennedy. The district, I found, has no compunction about mixing church and state. In all, the district gave about $45,000 to churches, synagogues, and religious groups, including $1,000 to a Hindu temple.
This list could go on and on (like, say, the $31,637.31 spent on flower bouquets or the $2,171.22 bamboo vase to put some of them in). The travel budget alone has traditionally been about $1.5 million -- which dwarfs any other government entity in Broward County.
District officials explain that they need to attend conferences to stay informed and accredited. I don't disagree with that, but I wonder if they shouldn't try to minimize them and consider capping their nightly hotel rates at, oh, maybe $200. And do they really need to hold so many expensive functions at local hotels, restaurants, and country clubs?
I asked district spokeswoman Sara Howley about all the money blown on business organizations, which often reciprocate the district's generosity with love-fest award ceremonies for NBHD and its officials. She said it helps drum up business for the district, which then benefits the medically needy.
Really? I always thought it was the other way around, that those chamber of commerce soirees were held to give lobbyists, businessmen, and various influence peddlers access to the public money trough.
Howley also claimed that all the expense money came from private funds. As if that matters. If the district didn't waste its "private" money, then it wouldn't need to continually raise our taxes. Meanwhile, as the high living continues, the district has been cutting medical programs and laying off workers to meet what is amounting to a budgetary crisis.
While I was wondering if a federal investigation of district spending was in order, NBHD officials were talking during the January board meeting about investigating, um, me.
Commissioner Braynon discovered I had obtained the account information through unofficial channels, so she urged NBHD General Counsel William Scherer to use "legal efforts" to determine the source.
Scherer seemed a bit taken aback by the request and noted that such information is available to the public anyway (though they'll stonewall you and try to charge you outrageous sums of money if you request it). "Some things are strategically protected," he said, "but not that."
Here's an idea for something to add to the strategically protected list: our money.
Because of a broiling bankruptcy battle, more than 70 emergency room physicians who work at four Broward hospitals weren't paid for December. Though there has been talk of a potentially disastrous walkout, angry and demoralized doctors continue on the job, trusting they will be paid in the future.
"We are all caught in the middle of this," says one ER doctor, who asked to remain anonymous. "We have mortgages to pay, we have bills to pay like everyone else. I am very angry that the Sun-Sentinel and no other newspaper [except New Times] has reported about this huge scandal."
While the doctors have been shuffled from company to company and continue to provide care, nobody is willing to compensate them for their work in December -- which amounts to more than $1.2 million in lost wages. Not their old firm, PhyAmerica, which is in bankruptcy. Not their new company, NB Ob/Gyn Physicians, which is owned by the embattled and politically connected Steven Scott. And not the tax-subsidized North Broward Hospital District, which signed a controversial contract with Scott in December (see "Deliver Us," January 29) and runs Broward General, Coral Springs, North Broward, and Imperial Point hospitals.
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At the heart of the mess is Scott, who ran PhyAmerica into the ground while living a lavish lifestyle in Boca Raton. After resigning in disgrace this past December 2, he hired away the ER doctors from his old company, violating bankruptcy-court orders and enraging his debtors, who together lost more than $400 million. A judge recently found him in contempt of court, and a legal battle over the contract continues.
Scott has some binding ties with the district; he employs both NBHD's powerful district general counsel, Bill Scherer, and its lobbyist, Jim Blosser. He is also a huge financier of the GOP and Gov. Jeb Bush, who has loaded the district board with political and business supporters.
Hospital district CEO Wil Trower -- who makes $600,000 a year after a recent $196,000 raise -- signed the ER contract with NB on December 11, just nine days after Scott's resignation. While doctors contend that Scott promised they would be paid for their December work, the district's chief of emergency medicine, Wayne Lee, who is employed by Scott, disavows his boss' responsibility. "[Scott] does not have the obligation for this paycheck," Lee says. "We are trying hard to find a resolution."
Such words provide little solace to the doctors. "How can I tell my creditors that I am working very hard but not getting paid? No one would believe it," says the anonymous doctor, who fears being fired for speaking out. "I think the community has to be aware. Let's get to the bottom of this before there are no good ob-gyn and no good ER docs [left]."