Steven A. Reid: AGH: Its past, present and future


Published: Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 7:27 p.m.

Friends and neighbors, I want to tell you a true story.

A story about life and death, about rich people and poor people, and about hundreds of millions of your dollars hanging in the balance.

A story whose final chapter you can help to write.

The story begins with Dr. William C. Thomas, who helped to found Alachua General Hospital (AGH) in 1927, and who served as its first chief of staff. He personally delivered over 8,000 babies. Chances are you know one of them.

The hospital he helped to birth was paid for by the citizens of Alachua County and was built on land formerly called “The Tin Can Tourist Camp,” a place where tourists could live in their cars or trailers while visiting the area.

It sits over a natural spring, which still provides water in the hospital’s sub-basement. The hospital has remained in continuous operation since its founding.

Hospital’s mission

In the 1950’s, Dr. Cullen Banks became the first black physician to have full hospital privileges at AGH.

The facility has a long tradition of providing compassionate, high quality health care to all of the people of Alachua County, including many without insurance on the east side of Gainesville.

Patients, families and staff agree that AGH is arguably the most convenient hospital in Gainesville. It provides easy access and free parking.

On June 29, 1983, Alachua County conveyed the hospital to Santa Fe Health Care for one dollar, on the condition that the hospital remain open to provide services for the people of Alachua County.

A reverter clause in the contract provided for immediate reversion of the hospital to Alachua County if Sante Fe failed to continue to provide specific services at AGH. Sante Fe operated the hospital profitably, and provided for expansion of the medical staff and modernization of facilities.

AGH and nearby health-related businesses employed thousands of people and provided an economic engine for the downtown area. Recognizing that AGH provides value beyond health care, the City of Gainesville changed the zoning around the hospital to encourage investment in medically related offices and businesses.

Shands’ covenant

Shands Teaching Hospital And Clinics, Inc. bought the hospital from Sante Fe Health Care in 1996, for a lot more than one dollar. The Alachua County Commission agreed to relinquish the above reverter clause if Shands would “covenant with the county and SantaFe HealthCare Systems, Inc., to continue to maintain and operate a nonprofit health care facility within Alachua County for the diagnosis, treatment, and care of sick and injured persons without discrimination on account of race, color, creed or sex; to provide emergency medical care to all residents of Alachua County without regard to their ability to pay; and to provide general acute care hospital services in Alachua County.”

The county commissioners, chaired at that time by Charles Chestnut III, expected Shands to continue to operate the hospital on behalf of the citizens of Alachua County, regardless of their ability to pay. They never promised Shands a profit.

Our story takes a dark turn at this point.

Physician exodus

For a variety of reasons, many physicians left AGH over the next decade, resulting in a loss of critical specialists. The Shands administration did not effectively respond to the factors triggering the exodus of physicians, and instead tried to shore up the staff with University of Florida physicians.

A bit of a culture clash ensued, but most UF doctors enjoyed the change of pace at AGH.

Nevertheless, the slow hemorrhage of doctors continued, leaving gaps in medical coverage.

Shands then spent millions of dollars converting the western half of AGH into a pediatric hospital, admitting its first patients October 17, 2006. The effort unfortunately failed, primarily because it proved impractical to shuttle sick children back and forth between AGH and Shands UF to obtain treatment from specialists based in different hospitals.

One should note, however, that the Shands administration found the physical plant of AGH more than adequate to support their new pediatric hospital for the 18 months it remained in operation.

University of Florida President J. Bernard Machen serves on the Board of Directors of Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics. President Machen’s main interest and duty consists of promoting and expanding the University of Florida where office, classroom and laboratory space are always in critical demand. He has indicated he would like to see a biotechnology center located at the AGH site.

The Shands Board of Directors now suddenly argues that they’d like to keep the hospital open, but repairing the AGH physical plant would break their budget. Yet the engineers at AGH and others well qualified to evaluate the structure have provided assurance that it remains sound.

A vibrant hospital

I invite anyone to walk through AGH and look around. Inside you’ll find a modern, clean, vibrant hospital.

Coincidentally, Shands UF plans to open a new “Cancer Tower” in late 2009 with staffing requirements that correlate very closely with the staffing of AGH.

Many AGH employees have applied for positions in the new Shands tower.

Unfortunately for them, they must compete with Shands UF employees for these jobs.

One could quite reasonably conclude that Shands UF has identified a ready-made population of experienced workers who may be forced to accept lower wages to staff their new tower.

So, my friends, we near the end of the story so far.

We have a hospital structurally sound enough to become a new pediatric hospital, suddenly too expensive to maintain.

We have a hospital corporation that has identified a source of experienced workers desperate to keep their jobs who could quickly be moved into place to staff a new tower.

We have a university president on the board of this hospital who has designs on the AGH site.

We have the citizens of Alachua County who woke up one day to find the hospital they built has somehow been given away.

And we have tens of thousands of people who rely on AGH for their health care.

Closing AGH may be in the interest of UF and Shands, but it most assuredly is not in the interest of the public.

Now is the time for you to help to write the final chapter.

Contact your elected representatives at the state, county and city levels.

Demand an investigation.

We need to save AGH.

Lives depend on it.

Steven A. Reid is a Gainesville neurosurgeon.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top