Watch this Sunday's edition of "Naples Daily NewsMakers with Jeff Lytle" at 10 a.m. on ABC7 for an interview with Dr. Allen Weiss, NCH Healthcare System president and CEO. The video will be available at naplesnews.com/newsmakers on Monday.
LEE COUNTY — Naples-based Health Management Associates is no longer pursuing a license to build a hospital in south Lee County.
The move clears the way for the Lee Memorial Health System to seek approval for its own hospital project, an HMA official said Wednesday.
“They had long ago made this plan and bought the land to serve the community,” Alan Levine, president of HMA’s Florida Group, said. “At the end of the day, a long protracted legal fight, it really isn’t something we are interested in.”
HMA recently completed a joint venture with Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg and has other acquisitions in the works, so the decision also was based on priorities, he said.
In February, HMA announced it intended to relocate its 88-bed hospital in Lehigh Acres to south Lee, potentially in the Alico Road area. That spurred Lee Memorial to submit a letter of intent to the state Agency for Health Care Administration for an 80-bed hospital.
Lee Memorial bought 33 acres on the south side of Coconut Road near U.S 41 several years ago. The recession put plans for a new hospital on the back burner.
Lee Memorial is proceeding with their application to the state, which was due Wednesday.
“We have been working on a 10-year master plan to meet the health care facility needs of our community, which considers the changing geographic population trends of our region, the need for additional capacity during the seasonal months, and renovations needed at Lee Memorial,” Jim Nathan, president of the publicly operated Lee Memorial, said in a statement.
“Thus, HMA’s decision (Wednesday) does not alter those facts.”
Levine said HMA will not object to Lee Memorial seeking a hospital license. The one unknown is if the NCH Healthcare System will take that step. NCH operates the 261-bed North Naples Hospital on Immokalee Road and draws patients from Estero and Bonita Springs.
“We have not yet been provided a copy of Lee Memorial’s CON application for a new hospital in south Lee County and would reserve any further comment until we have had an opportunity to carefully review the entire proposal,” NCH spokeswoman Debbie Curry said in a statement.
“In the meantime NCH remains fully committed to serving all of our patients the highest quality clinical care.”
If NCH opposes Lee Memorial, it has 21 days to submit a written statement of opposition from the time that the state has deemed Lee Memorial’s application complete and available to the public, which would likely be April 12, according to state agency spokeswoman Sheila Coleman.
The state will issue its decision on Lee Memorial’s application June 7, which Lee Memorial can appeal if it is denied the license. If NCH lodges an objection to Lee Memorial’s application, NCH can oppose a license approval.
Lee Memorial is not making its application available to the public until after the state has the chance to redact confidential patient information, Lee Memorial spokeswoman Mary Briggs said.
At the same time, Lee Memorial’s elected board is holding a workshop today to discuss its application. The workshop was scheduled before HMA’s decision.
Ben Nelson, Bonita Springs mayor, said he was pleased Lee Memorial is moving forward, adding it would not have looked good if Lee Memorial put its plans on hold after HMA dropped out of the picture.
“This to me, solidifies it more, Lee Memorial staying with the process makes me more appreciative,” he said. “Good for them.”
Because Nathan and Levine had met in recent weeks to discuss the potential of some collaboration, Nelson speculated that something may be forthcoming.”
Levine said no deal is in the works, but in an email Wednesday to Nathan, Levine said he looked forward to continued dialogue.
“As a taxpayer and significant employer in Lee County, we have a stake in the health of the residents of Lee County, and will continue to remain very engaged with you as we both seek to evolve a delivery model that provides choice, access, cost effectiveness and high quality,” Levine’s email said.
The Estero Council of Community Leaders has been backing Lee Memorial and was collecting letters of support to be included in the application. Nick Bartos, chair of the council, said last week that the council had already collected 2,000 letters.
Levine declined to say if the level of support for Lee Memorial played a role in HMA’s decision.
“Keep in mind, when we were going to build (a hospital), the community was positive as well,” he said. “To some degree, I’m pleased HMA was almost the catalyst for moving the agenda forward. We both saw a need.”
Levine said Lehigh Regional Medical Center will remain open, but the company is looking at its long-term strategy.