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Lower Keys officials, residents are anxious about medical care services

David Clay, Chief Executive Officer of the Lower Keys Medical Center, speaks before a packed room of residents at the Harvey Government Center in Key West about the hospital at the Lower Keys Hospital District Board meeting on Wednesday, May 8, 2024.
Julia Cooper
David Clay, CEO of the Lower Keys Medical Center, speaks before a packed room of residents at the Harvey Government Center in Key West about the hospital at a district board meeting on Wednesday, May 8, 2024.

The Lower Keys Hospital District Board will convene a special committee to set minimum care standards on the Lower Keys Medical Center’s next lease after a public push for more oversight.

When the doors closed last year at the only cancer center in the Florida Keys, public officials and local residents worried that Monroe County's 82,000 residents may lose more specialized medical care in the future.

Those concerns were evident this month when the Lower Keys Hospital District Board announced it was going to convene a special committee to set minimum care standards on the Lower Keys Medical Center’s next lease.

The board oversees the only hospital and satellite facility in Key West, which has more than 26,000 residents. The hospital lease expires in five years.

Several specialized health services can only be reached on the mainland — over 100 miles away from Key West. That issue was exacerbated last year when the only cancer center on the island chain, GenesisCare, closed.

The new committee will be made up of six people, with each hospital district board member bringing the names of recommended appointees to their next meeting Aug. 5.

The goal of the committee is to establish minimum care requirements that will be written into the next lease agreement that the succeeding hospital leaseholder must adhere to. Board members hope to have two members of the general public, two health care professionals and two financial experts on the committee.

“Our ideal world would have been for them to say ‘It’s logical that an objective comparison is necessary to pick the best hospital,'” said Spencer Krenke, founder of a local advocacy group, Our Hospital Key West.

But, Krenke told WLRN, he views the formation of the committee as a positive step.

“I think them doing that is great as opposed to just giving a lease to the existing hospital without an objective comparison,” he said.

The move from the board comes after a public push from Our Hospital Key West, residents and a city-led task force to urge the board to conduct an analysis comparing hospital operators to the current lease-holder, Community Health Systems.

Community Health Systems is a health care site operator headquartered in Franklin, Tennessee, with 71 hospitals across 15 states.

CHS has divested from several hospitals in recent years, including the December sale to Tampa General Hospital of three Bravera Health properties in Citrus and Hernando counties

“This is a critical issue facing our community,” said Sam Kaufman, vice mayor of Key West, who also formed the city’s Hospital Lease Task Force. “Myself, my family, all of the residents here in the community, we want to continue to live here, be able to age here in place and not have to travel or move away.”

"Formal, fair and transparent'

The task force advising Kaufman includes dozens of local residents, many with professional backgrounds in the medical field, according to Kaufman. It formed to support the efforts of the hospital district board as it prepares to award the next hospital lease after the current one expires in April 2029.

Kaufman called for “a formal, fair and transparent process to conduct a comparative analysis of potential future operators of the hospital” at the meeting. He said residents are hoping to find an operator that is “best suited to commit the financial resources, redevelop and modernize the hospital facility.”

On May 8, the day the board met, the room at the Harvey Government Building, which was a bigger space than the board’s regular meeting spot at the hospital, was packed with about 80 people eager to learn more about the Lower Keys medical system and lease situation.

“For a lot of us, ‘can we live here?’ is a real question,” said Krenke, of Our Hospital Key West. “It’s not hyperbole; it’s not dramatic; it’s legitimate.”

George Dumigan, a Key West resident of about 15 years, told the meeting that services like catheterization are difficult to come by.

He sasid he has a neurogenic bladder that requires him to self-catheter, and on one occasion he had to go 21 hours without urinating when he was unable to do it himself and was forced to go to Miami for care.

"That's quite painful after a while," Dumigan said. "So then I decided I've got to get involved in this hospital thing. I have a concern that we need to get better health here."

Filling gaps in cancer care

One of the biggest topics of concern that Kaufman hears from residents, he said, was re-establishing cancer care in the Keys.

It’s been nine months since the closing of GenesisCare. But David Clay, the CEO of the Lower Keys Medical Center, said the hospital is in the planning stage of putting together a cancer center.

“This will not happen overnight,” Clay said at the May 8 meeting.

Clay told the crowd that hospital administration has identified a location for a potential center.

A Lower Keys Medical Center spokesperson later told WLRN that the hospital is in the middle of the “assessment and due diligence phase” of reopening radiation oncology services.

“The work underway includes site selection and equipment evaluation, and once that is complete, we will move into the design process,” the spokesperson wrote via email. “The plans would require approval from AHCA (Florida Agency for Health Care Administration) before construction begins. During the process we will be on a parallel path to recruit the needed specialists and staff to our community.”

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM

Julia Cooper