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North Broward hospital district wants to go private

Leaders of tax-collecting North Broward Hospital District voted Friday to turn over its billion-dollar-a-year operation to a new nonprofit group, essentially privatizing the state’s largest public health system and stripping most powers from its scandal-prone board.

District officials said the new structure approved by the board would open the door to new business ventures that the district is legally barred from, potentially making more money and reducing the amount of tax money needed to keep the system afloat.

Also, the new nonprofit group would not be subject to state rules that now require the district to hold public meetings and maintain public documents.

At least at first, the district – also called Broward Health – would continue collecting about $175 million a year from property owners in its territory north of Griffin Road, said Frank Nask, the chief executive.

“We’re pretty excited about it. This will make us stronger,” Nask said. “Over time, this will be a benefit to the community and the taxpayers.”

Under the plan, the hospital district will still own the system, but lease its operations to the new nonprofit, which has not yet been created. The district board, staff and consultants will take six to nine months to set up the new organization and the crucial financial details of the lease, Nask said.

The district runs four medical centers – Broward General, North Broward, Imperial Point and Coral Springs – that house two trauma centers and special units for critically ill newborns, as well as 11 clinics for the uninsured, HIV/AIDS patients and the homeless. It competes against seven corporate-owned or nonprofit hospitals in its turf.

The change will end the public’s ability to monitor the hospital system’s day-to-day decisions. The district’s seven-member board is appointed by the governor and meets in public monthly to run the system.

Instead, the board of the new nonprofit group will meet privately and report back to the district board, which will remain in place with greatly reduced duties of overseeing the use of tax money.

Board member Richard Paul-Hus called the move as an improvement, saying the new nonprofit board would be stocked with high-powered executives with business expertise, as opposed to the political appointees now in charge.

“The public following the district, you’ve probably been very frustrated by the politics that have existed at Broward Health for many years. This takes the politics out of the operation of the hospitals,” said Paul-Hus, vice president of family-owned Hypower Inc. contracting firm.

The district has seen a steady series of controversies going back decades involving board members attempting to steer contracts or exerting influence on behalf of businesses.

On another front, one South Florida advocate for low-income and Medicaid patients said she worried that privatizing Broward’s largest health safety-net would lead to less care for the uninsured. But she didn’t know enough about the proposal to take a position.

“We would hope they don’t cut their charity care,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida Community Health Action Information Network, also known as CHAIN. “Are they going to make a decision to decrease the tax rate and give a lot of money back to the taxpayers, or are they going to continue to invest in the community with charity care?”

Nask said the board has “made a commitment” to continuing its mission unabated.

But he said the new setup will let the system invest in more projects. The district’s govermental status prevented it recently from becoming a partner in an out-patient surgery center, a radiation therapy center and an office building.

Officials said the change will help cushion the impact if, as they fear, the district’s public hospitals and clinics lose patients once the federal health overhaul requires almost all Americans to be covered by health insurance in 2014.

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