History doesn’t paint favorable picture for healthcare venture between The Villages and UF Health

Like many of you, we’re not exactly sure what Friday’s announcement about the partnership between The Villages and the University of Florida Health really means.

The announcement came via UF Health and it said the nationally known healthcare provider was entering into “exclusive talks” with the powers-that-be at the mega-retirement community to “transform” regional healthcare. It also said The Villages and UF Health plan to develop a comprehensive health care campus “that will offer a full portfolio of education, research, and advanced healthcare and wellness services for The Villages community, including a new general acute care hospital.”

The Villages Health’s Pinellas Care Center is one of seven primary care clinics the healthcare provider operates in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.
The Villages Health care center in Brownwood currently offers both primary and specialty care.

There are two things that are quite interesting about that statement. First, UF Health already has a relationship with Central Florida Health, parent company of The Villages Regional Hospital and Leesburg Regional Medical Center. So that raises a slew of questions about the Gainesville-based healthcare provider partnering with The Villages to open a hospital here.

Second, the Developer owns The Villages Health, a large-scale medical practice with seven primary care centers scattered across Florida’s Friendliest Hometown and specialty care centers located near The Villages Regional Hospital and in Brownwood. The local healthcare provider also is in the process of building the massive Advanced Center for Healthcare at Brownwood, which will house its specialists and multiple other medical practices. It will be located next to the Brownwood Hotel & Spa – a 150-room, 215,000-square-foot facility that is slated to open in the coming year.

The Advanced Center for Healthcare at Brownwood, left, and the Brownwood Hotel & Spa, located on State Road 44, are slated to open in the coming year.

The idea behind this medical campus is simple – a covered walkway will connect the massive hotel to the medical center, making it a bed-less hospital of sorts that largely will focus on high-dollar outpatient procedures. Patients of the five-story, 285,000-square-foot medical facility also will be able to use a discreet exit and quickly retreat to their nearby hotel rooms, thereby avoiding a hospital stay.

While this all sounds wonderful – we sincerely hope this partnership takes healthcare in the community to a new level – let’s all remember that we’ve heard this song and dance many times in the past. Big-name medical providers have come in touting huge healthcare partnerships and before you know it, they’ve quietly gone away.

Mark Morse

Many Villagers will remember the day in May 2013 when Villages Developer Mark Morse stood before members of The Villages Homeowners Association and bragged about The Villages Health. It was the brainchild of his late father, retirement community guru H. Gary Morse, who had made it his mission to offer greatly improved healthcare inside the walls of The Villages so that his residents wouldn’t have to leave the community for most kinds of medical care.

The elder Morse was following in the footsteps of his father, Villages Founder Harold Schwartz, who had pretty much started the ongoing quest for elusive excellent healthcare on Day One and in 1997, at the age of 87, had gone so far as to be shown pointing toward the ground on an infamous billboard that read: “I’ll live to see The Villages Regional Hospital right here!”

In 1997, Villages founder Harold Schwartz appeared on billboard making a bold promise to Villagers about the future of healthcare in the community.

Mark Morse talked about primary care doctors who would be modern-day “Marcus Welbys” – physicians who would be throwbacks when it came to bedside manner and forming relationships with patients. They would spend at least 30 minutes with patients during appointments and would stress preventive medicine instead of just providing care when someone was sick.

A second part of the puzzle was a partnership with mega-insurance provider UnitedHealthcare, who along with The Villages Health would push patients to sign up for Medicare Advantage plans. And the third part was the specialty care center that would be operated by the University of South Florida.

Harold Schwartz and H. Gary Morse

Many of you might remember the fanfare associated with USF Health providing specialists at the building that at one time housed The Villages Wellness Center and the community’s only indoor swimming pool.

It was a huge ordeal in January 2014 when the ribbon was cut at the new specialty care center and USF specialists started seeing patients. A slew of bigwigs from the Tampa school were on hand for the big day, including the university’s president, Judy Genshaft. Big promises were made about the working relationships that would exist between the university’s specialists and Villages Health primary care doctors. And all we heard about was how the partnership would make it possible to create “America’s Healthiest Hometown.”

The original group of specialists who were assigned to the USF Health Specialty Care Center in The Villages.
A huge fanfare was made in January 2014 when the ribbon was cut at the new USF Health Specialty Care Center in The Villages.

Eight months later, USF Health waved goodbye to The Villages after losing millions of dollars on the failed partnership. USF officials claimed the specialty care center couldn’t make enough income to succeed, primarily due to having enrolled 6,000 of the needed 20,000 residents in a Medicare managed care plan from UnitedHealthcare. USF Health turned over operation of the specialty care center to The Villages Health and quietly slinked out of town – the result of which was a huge black eye on the whole America’s Healthiest Hometown concept.

In 2010, a similar hullabaloo was made when it was announced that the renowned Moffitt Cancer Center was opening a facility at the Sharon L. Morse Medical Building in partnership with The Villages Regional Hospital. Moffitt officials at the healthcare provider’s home base in Tampa touted the satellite facility as “the first of its kind.” And Villagers battling cancer who were being forced to make multiple trips to Tampa for treatments were promised that care would be available “just a golf cart ride away.”

Villagers were asked to help raise money to pay for equipment at the Moffitt Cancer Center in The Villages.

In what should have been a sign of concern, Villagers were asked to donate money to help purchase needed equipment for the facility. Many area residents participated in the fundraising effort to raise a whopping $6.3 million, including Terry and Glendora Yoder, owners of T&D Concrete, who donated $100,000, and Fross & Fross Financial, which donated $50,000 after Robert Fross’ wife, Amy, lost her battle with cancer.

Five years later, with the partnership completely deteriorated and the dream of a comprehensive cancer center in The Villages unfulfilled, the powers-that-be at Moffitt Cancer Center refused to expand services and the contract came to an end. Once again, a highly touted medical provider slinked out of town with a plethora of broken promises left behind.

The Moffitt Cancer Center’s satellite facility in The Villages was located in the Sharon L. Morse Medical Building.

Finally, let’s also not forget the boondoggle that erupted in July 2016 when The Villages Health sent out letters stating that beginning on Jan. 1, 2017 it would no longer accept new or existing patients who had Original Medicare with supplemental insurance. That meant that patients with Medicare supplemental plans, also known as Medigap policies, would have to find new doctors or switch to The Villages Medicare Advantage plans offered exclusively through UnitedHealthcare.

Gone were the promises of modern-day “Marcus Welbys” for those who bought into the concept but weren’t willing give up their supplemental plans in favor of Medicare Advantage. The National Retiree Legislative Network, an advocacy organization that lobbies Congress of behalf of more than 2 million retirees from more than 200 companies, responded by hosting meetings to form a chapter in The Villages. And to say that a public outcry erupted and the healthcare system’s reputation was extremely tainted in many Villagers’ eyes would be a huge understatement at best.

There’s no question that Villagers would love to receive the kind of healthcare that’s available at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville.

As we said earlier, we’re holding out hope that the new partnership with UF Health is a huge win-win for residents and the healthcare provider. We saw a similar positive situation come out of Moffitt’s exit from the community when it was replaced by Florida Cancer Specialists, a growing organization that brought in new equipment without asking Villagers to pay for it and still is going strong in its expanded space inside the Sharon L. Morse Medical Building.

Of course, one has to wonder what the ultimate goal of the partnership might be. Frankly, we wouldn’t be surprised if UF Health eventually purchases The Villages Health and Central Florida Health. That would give the healthcare provider control over everything from primary care to specialty care to acute care in a wealthy community that’s growing at a blistering pace. And let’s face it, if the kind of care that’s offered at UF Health Shands Hospital were to become available here in The Villages, who wouldn’t be thrilled?

Like you, we’ll just have to wait and see where this venture ends up. But we’re keeping our fingers crossed because the last thing we want to see is yet another big-name healthcare provider break promises to Villagers and shamefully slink out of town.