Many Villagers might not know it, but they can largely thank former Gov. Jeb Bush for the expansions that have taken place at The Villages Regional Hospital since it first opened in July 2002 with just 60 beds.
That’s because in 2004 major obstacles were looming over a planned expansion. The hospital, which was owned by Leesburg Regional Medical Center, was attempting to go from 60 to at least 192 beds to accommodate the fast-growing mega-retirement community.
In those days, a Certificate of Need (CON) was needed to build a hospital or expand it. It was an often costly and drawn-out process that required an application to be filed with the Agency for Health Care Administration. And it was commonplace for neighboring hospitals – in fear of losing patients to the expanded facility – to challenge the plan, which could make the process drag on even longer.
Officials with The Villages and Leesburg hospitals had made the argument that the growing retirement community was experiencing an immediate need for additional acute-care beds. They said they understood the CON requirement for a new hospital. But they maintained that their plan was to simply add beds to meet an immediate need and therefore they shouldn’t be subjected to the long and arduous CON ordeal.
In the 2003 Legislative session – The Villages brass had been working lawmakers pretty hard – a bill was sent to the governor that would allow The Villages Regional Hospital to avoid the CON nightmare. The reason – it was the only acute-care hospital in Sumter County, which had experienced a 60-percent jump in its population and was showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
But an obstacle arose a short time later when a judge ruled against the measure. He pointed out that a phrase in the law disqualified both The Villages Regional Hospital and Leesburg Regional Medical Center because of their proximity to Lifestream Behavioral Center, a psychiatric facility.
To complicate matters even further, Ocala Regional Medical Center and Munroe Regional Medical Center teamed up to file a lawsuit claiming that the new law allowing expansion without going through the CON process was unconstitutional.
Members of both the Leesburg and Villages hospitals’ boards of directors quickly fired back to defend the expansion plan, saying the retirement community was growing at a booming clip that was far outdistancing the community’s only acute-care hospital. They claimed there was an immediate need to catch up. And they pointed out that The Villages facility had been at or near 100 percent capacity for many months.
Longtime Villagers will know that in those days the Morse family shared a tight bond with the governor and his brother, President George W. Bush. In fact, Villages Developer H. Gary Morse was one of the top contributors to the president and was a voting member of the state’s Electoral College. And his support of Gov. Bush – he would sometimes come to the community just to get away and play a round of golf – also was well known throughout the state.
Not surprisingly, it soon became obvious that The Villages brass, lobbyists and lawyers had put on a full-court press and made a good case for the hospital to expand quickly. Gov. Bush clearly agreed with their arguments and in June 2004 he made it official by signing legislation that did away with the CON process when a hospital adds general beds to an existing facility. That plan perfectly fit The Villages Regional Hospital’s needs, as the expansion was going up, not out into new buildings.
With their lawsuit now moot, a spokesperson for the Ocala hospitals said they were OK with new law because it eliminated the special consideration The Villages hospital would have enjoyed and put all facilities on equal ground. Another spokesperson for the Ocala facilities said the change in the law would save medical facilities money that could have been spent in legal and consulting fees to go through the CON process. And he pointed out that he would hope hospitals wouldn’t add beds if they weren’t needed.
One Leesburg Regional board member scoffed at that notion, especially given the tremendous growth that The Villages and other communities in Central Florida were experiencing at the time. And he added that with the tremendous costs associated with expansions, he couldn’t foresee a hospital board approving added beds in a facility if they weren’t desperately needed.
In 2013, The Villages Regional Hospital would embark on another $59 million expansion that would again add much-needed beds. Today, the facility has 307 beds – more than five times the number it had when it opened 17 years ago. And as of its latest 157,236-square-foot expansion, which was officially completed on July 1, 2016 when the 22-bed TVRH Rehabilitation Hospital opened, the facility boasts 424,747 total square feet that includes a North Tower, a state-of-the-art surgery center, 36 beds in an expanded emergency department, 34 medical-surgical beds, 464 physicians with hospital privileges and more than 1,200 employees.