Surprise pact raises questions about UF Health’s future involvement in The Villages

Friday’s surprise announcement of a healthcare pact between The Villages and the University of Florida Health caught many area residents and medical professionals by surprise – and also left many unanswered questions.

The Gainesville-based healthcare provider already had its fingers in the community through an agreement with Central Florida Health, the parent company of The Villages Regional Hospital and Leesburg Regional Medical Center. Under that partnership, announced in February 2018, the two providers promised to “collaborate” on new health initiatives to expand access to leading-edge patient care programs and clinical studies for tri-county residents.

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University of Florida Health, which owns UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, is making its presence felt in The Villages in many ways.

The two entities also vowed to explore the creation of primary care physician training opportunities at both hospitals. The demand for primary care physicians remains on the rise as The Villages continues to build new homes at breakneck speed in the Villages of Southern Oaks portion of the community and the overall Central Florida population continues to rapidly increase.

Enter The Villages and its Developer-owned, primary-care-driven medical practice, The Villages Health. Officially announced in 2013 by Developer Mark Morse during his annual meeting with The Villages Homeowners Association, The Villages Health was the brainchild of his father, late retirement community guru H. Gary Morse. His father, Villages Founder Harold Schwartz, had made it his mission in life to bring a hospital to the community – in 1997, at age 87, he was shown on a billboard pointing toward the ground with the caption “I’ll live to see The Villages Regional Hospital right here!” – and Gary Morse vowed to take it to the next level with top-notch primary-care-driven preventive medicine.

The Villages Developer is building the Advanced Center for Healthcare at Brownwood on State Road 44, which will house physicians from The Villages Health, Lake Medical Imaging, Florida Cancer Specialists, St. Luke’s Laser Institute and Lake Centre for Rehab, among others.
Villages Developer Mark Morse

During that meeting, Mark Morse explained how Villages Health doctors would have more time to spend with patients – 30-minute appointments – and the bedside manner of beloved television character Dr. Marcus Welby, played by Robert Young. He promised they would stress preventive care and work with their patients to prevent illnesses before they happened.

Morse also talked about a partnership that had been formed with the University of South Florida Health, which would provide vital research opportunities and oversee a specialty care clinic near The Villages Regional Hospital. Promises of coordinated care were shared that day and things certainly looked bright for the future of healthcare in the community.

Roughly a year and a half later, the agreement with USF Health failed and after spending millions of dollars on the venture, the university pulled its resources from the community. The Villages Health assumed control of the specialty care center and its hefty price tag and clearly started the search for another partner to join the effort going forward.

University of South Florida Health pulled out of a deal in 2014 to oversee The Villages Health Specialty Care Center, which is located at 1400 N. U.S. Hwy. 441, Suite 810, in the building that used to house The Villages Wellness Center and the community’s only indoor swimming pool.

Some in the community weren’t surprised to see UF Health come forward because it already had established a presence in the community even before joining forces with Central Florida Health last year. The healthcare provider is known worldwide for UF Health Shands Hospital – a highly ranked trauma center – and already was providing care for many Villagers and other area residents who needed higher levels of treatments, including vehicle crash victims and those suffering from strokes who many times are flown to the facility via ShandsCair helicopters.

Rumors also have floated throughout the community for years that UF Health has been interested in purchasing the two hospitals. Friday’s announcement certainly raises questions about a possible interest in also owning The Villages Health, which interestingly enough, was never mentioned in UF Health’s 1,350-plus-word release announcing the new venture.

ShandsCair frequently flies patients from The Villages and the tri-county area who are in need of specialized treatments to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville.

The release also promises that the mega-retirement community and the healthcare giant will “continue exclusive talks as they work to build a new model for health care in the region” and create a comprehensive health care campus offering everything from education to research to advanced health care and wellness services to a new general acute care hospital.

It remains to be seen what UF Health hopes to accomplish in the community. But with the continued growth and an older population with disposable income who will require more and more health care as they age, it makes sense for the healthcare provider to spread its wings into the sprawling retirement community that eventually will reach as far south as Bushnell.

The Villages Health care center in Brownwood currently offers both primary and specialty care.

The new partnership also provides UF Health the missing piece of the puzzle. With its affiliation already established with hospital-owner Central Florida Health and a pact now secured with The Villages, UF Health will have its hands in just about all facets of care – primary, specialty and acute. The provider also brings to the table a stellar reputation for care provided at Shands Hospital, which is just 60 miles away and a quick trip by helicopter for those patients who need it.

Toss in the fact that in past years The Villages Developer has been known to shed ancillary business unrelated to the building of homes and it stands to reason that its healthcare operation would be no different. So now that it has a high-dollar partner that dwarfs its former affiliation with USF Health, it should come as no surprise if down the road the Villages Developer gets out of the healthcare business and UF Health continues to establish an even larger presence in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown – including and up to being the primary owner of multiple medical practices and facilities at all points along the healthcare spectrum.