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Judge approves bid for another hospice program in Manatee

MANATEE — It appears Manatee County will soon have a choice when it comes to hospice programs.

That means TideWell Hospice and Palliative Care, the county’s primary hospice provider since 1988, now will have competition.

A state administrative law judge recommended approval of a bid by Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, based in Pinellas County, to provide hospice services in Manatee County.

The recommendation from Judge David M. Maloney was handed down Friday in Tallahassee. It caps a three-year legal battle that began when TideWell appealed the state Agency for Health Care Administration’s March 2007 ruling awarding Suncoast the right to serve Manatee.

“We know the recommendation has been made, and we fully expect AHCA to follow the recommendation,” said Louise Cleary, Suncoast’s public relations director. “It’s good news after a long haul.”

Hospice is a program that provides special care for patients diagnosed with a terminal disease and their families.

TideWell has until March 15 to file exceptions to Maloney’s recommendation, according to an AHCA spokeswoman. After that, AHCA has 30 days to adopt the recommendation, a virtual certainty considering the judge agreed with the agency’s original approval. TideWell can appeal AHCA’s final order to the 1st District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee.

David Glaser, TideWell’s director of communications, said the organization’s attorneys are reviewing Maloney’s recommendation. He was unsure if TideWell would file exceptions or appeal the final order.

“Regardless of the recent decision, TideWell Hospice remains focused on creating an unmatched individual experience for patients and their loved ones,” read a statement issued Tuesday by TideWell. “We are privileged to service the community with an exceptional group of local professionals and volunteers who are often the neighbors and friends of those entrusted to our care.”

During the administrative law hearing in August, TideWell’s attorneys argued the introduction of Suncoast in Manatee County would unduly damage TideWell, costing the company $1.3 million and 452 admissions in 2011.

In his decision, Maloney said TideWell’s overall business would not be severely affected.

TideWell serves Manatee, Sarasota, DeSoto and Charlotte counties. According to court records, 29 percent of Tidewell’s admissions and 25 percent of its revenue come from Manatee County. Sarasota County alone accounts for more than two-thirds of Tidewell’s gross revenue, according to the records.

“Suncoast’s proposed program cannot be implemented without a reduction initially in TideWell’s historical utilization,” the decision read. “It is the extremely rare case in which there would not be an impact on an existing hospice provider when a new provider enters a service area. ... Impact does not rise to the level that would support denial of the application.”

While both organizations are not-for-profit, full-service community hospices, Suncoast is much larger. Suncoast, which is the primary hospice provider in Pinellas County, boasts 1,600 employees to TideWell’s 900 and 2,800 volunteers to TideWell’s 1,100, court records show.

Cleary declined to discuss Suncoast’s plans for Manatee County until final approval is received.

Court records indicate Suncoast has no immediate plans to build a facility in Manatee County. But the organization has had preliminary discussions with Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and Westminster Retirement Community about working together to provide inpatient services.

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