Sarasota hospital board candidates weigh in at forum on privatization, abortion and more (2024)

Candidates for At-Large Seats 1 and 3 on the Sarasota County Public Hospital Board quickly agreed on one thing Thursday at a candidate forum hosted by Sarasota Tiger Bay – none of the five individuals who participated have an appetite to see the Sarasota Memorial Health Care System privatized.

The hospital board forum was the first for that board ever hosted by Sarasota Tiger Bay.

The nine-member public hospital panel sets policy for the Sarasota Memorial Health Care System, which includes all Sarasota Memorial Hospital campuses, related healthcare facilities and clinics and First Physicians Group.

The partisan hospital board races had historically been low-profile prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted a “Health Freedom” slate of candidates to run for four of five seats in 2022.

Sarasota hospital board candidates weigh in at forum on privatization, abortion and more (1)

Three of those candidates won in 2022. If two of the four candidates either running expressly on or aligned with a “medical freedom platform" win this year, that could create a majority of board members with similar philosophies.

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A tweet last year by retired Lt. Gen Mike Flynn, the former national security advisor of former president Donald Trump, suggested that if the board was not going to listen to the voice of residents during a public meeting to discuss results of an internal SMH review of its COVID-19 response, it may be time for the hospital to become private.

The issue added to the intensity of debate over the hospital's handling of COVID.

Sarasota hospital board candidates weigh in at forum on privatization, abortion and more (2)

Candidates offer thumbs-down on prospect of taking SMH private

Incumbent Sharon Wetzler DePeters, who is seeking her third term in At-Large Seat 1, offered the most succinct answer to the question posed by moderator Jon Thaxton, senior vice president for community leadership at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

“Simple sentence: it’s not broken, so don’t try to fix it,” said DePeters, whose response was punctuated by applause from the crowd at Michael’s On East banquet room.

Her opponent in the Republican primary, Dr. Tamzin Rosenwasser, said: “I am definitely not in favor of quote, privatizing unquote the hospital.”

Roswenwasser said that she and other candidates running on the idea of medical freedom had been incorrectly “plastered” with that stance.

“Over the course of my life in medicine I have seen what’s been happening and what’s been happening is what is called ‘private,’ is actually healthcare private equity corporations buying hospitals and buying medical practices and consolidating control over them.

“We are very lucky that we have a public hospital with a voter-elected board that is accountable to the people here.”

Alan Jerome Sprintz, the Democrat who will face the winner of the Aug. 20 primary between DePeters and Rosenwasser agreed, and said that privatization would change the mission of the hospital system from providing community healthcare to profit for private investors.

Al-Large Seat 3 Republican candidate Pam Beitlich, who, prior to her retirement in May had beenexecutive director of Women & Children’s Services at Sarasota Memorial Health Care System, said her answer was simply “no,” then went on to cite services that would likely disappear from SMH, such labor and delivery and construction of facilities such as the Cornell Behavioral Health Pavilion, and the needed but not always profitable services provided.

Republican Mary Flynn O’Neill – sister of the retired lieutenant general – first said, “I'm going to get the elephant out of the room; I'm not General Flynn, I'm my own person, I’ve worked my whole life in public service in nonprofit world for 35 years – in the business world for 45 total.

“I’ve worked many different nonprofits – the stories about me wanting to privatize this hospital are absolutely false,” she added. “I’m very excited about this hospital, I think this hospital is amazing, the community is very important to me.”

O’Neill sat for lunch before the forum at a table with several SMH officials, while the other candidates in attendance sat at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation table, which was steps away from the stage.

Dr. George Davis, the Democrat who would face the winner of the Beitlich-O’Neill primary, did not attend. Last month Sarasota County Democratic Party Chairman Daniel Kuether urged candidates to boycott this year’s forums. Ironically, attorney Morgan Bentley, the club’s program committee co-chair, is a Democrat and former state senate candidate.

Candidates weigh on on the definition of ‘medical freedom’

Sarasota hospital board candidates weigh in at forum on privatization, abortion and more (4)

Questions posed by Thaxton included asking each candidate to provide their own definition of “medical freedom” and an assessment of the performance of Sarasota Memorial Health Care System CEO David Verinder.

All five candidates equated that freedom to a patient’s right to be treated by their physician in a manner in which they approve.

Rosenwasser asserted that during the COVID-19 pandemic that did not happen, with the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin blocked, in favor of protocols and treatments approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and National Institute of Health.

She stressed that those governmental agencies do not practice medicine.

“Hundreds of lives could have been saved with early treatment but it was denigrated,” she added.

Sprintz, a retired hospital administrator, countered that while individuals have the right to accept or reject medical care, hospitals that allow for treatment methods not determined effective by peer review could ultimatelylead to lawsuits. He said people have a right to choose the style of their care, but if it wasn’t based on peer-reviewed treatments, they shouldn’t expect hospitals to “be a party to it.”

Both Beitlich and DePeters said SMH's approach to COVID-19 evolved as the pandemic progressed and doctors learned about the virus.

“Do I believe in medical freedom? One hundred percent,” Beitlich said. “We made changes, so many changes based on COVID.

“I would just end with, however, I do believe in science and I do believe in education.”

O’Neill framed medical freedom through the lens of the need for parents to consult with doctors for the health of their children and the rigid lack of medical freedom in the military.

“My thing is, everybody has the right to medical freedom, it's a constitutional right.”

As for Verinder’s performance, both Beitlich and DePeters gave him glowing reviews for how the hospital system that has developed strategic focus enhanced its financial stability in his tenure as a chief financial officer, chief operating officer and chief executive officer.

O’Neill and Rosenwasser both chose to reserve judgment because they are not familiar with his performance.

Sprintz, the retired hospital administrator, said, “Specifically to David, my kudos.

“David took Sarasota Memorial and created a healthcare system that provides care from North Port to Manatee,” he added. “That’s an incredibly difficult visionary job to do. My kudos to him, he has done a superb job.”

Candidates reveal their first priority if elected

O’Neill said her first priority would be to look into the sustainability of SMH’s finances.

DePeters said hers is maintaining quality patient care as the hospital grows.

Rosenwasser echoed that thought but added, “protecting you from government overreach.”

Sprintz said he saw his role as a board member as ensuring that the policies and vision of the hospital are rational and sensible.

Beitlich agreed with Sprintz and stressed the importance of “preserving the health care you all have come to expect.”

As evidence of that, she pointed to the fact that Sarasota Memorial Hospital is the only hospital in Florida – and one of 33 in the country – to maintain a five-star rating from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicaid Services since 2016.

Does medical freedom extend to abortion and gender affirming care?

Liz Barber asked the candidates to give their position on a women’s right to choose with respect to abortion and gender affirming care.

DePeters responded that those questions are between a patient and their doctor. “I am not getting involved.”

Rosenwsser thought otherwise.

“This is the first time in history that delusions are treated with surgery and that surgery is not able to be reversed,” Rosenwasser said about gender affirming care. “When did we get this epidemic of gender dysphoria? These poor children need to be taken care of but jumping to surgery and other irreversible actions is basically against my ethics.”

She later said, “A woman's choice shouldn’t be a choice on killing a baby, especially at nine months – there are adoption options and there's the option to not get pregnant.”

Sprintz said the state and federal government should not be involved in personal freedom choices.

Beitlich said “as a board member, it’s not about my personal choice.

“As a board member I would be there to follow the Florida statutes.”

O’Neill said she is pro life then opined that gender affirming care is not doing too well in this country.

“I know three little girls that will never be the same – I’ll give you the stats if you want to talk to me later, that’s a very dangerous thing, we’ve got to understand that,” she said. “It’s not just about choice, it’s about science and what’s going on with this stuff.”

Candidates weigh in on off-label drug use

Cathy Antunes asked the candidates their thoughts on off-label use of drugs. “The concern is, ‘medical freedom,’ may mean we don’t have to follow what the FDA means,” she said.

Rosenwasser noted that off-label use is commonplace. She cited off-label use of hydroxychloroquine safely for decades.

“The FDA has one thing, to approve drugs – they don’t practice medicine,” she added.

Sprintz pointed to the volume of studies required for the FDA to approve a drug for use.

“Every drug has side effects, " he added. “Remember the guidelines are guidelines, they’re not rules, so if someone wants to try using something off label, they can do it.”

Beitlich pointed to SMH oversight and standards. “We are very vigilant in looking at anything that’s done from a medical standpoint, but again I will go back to the patient has every right to do what they want – that decision with their physician.”

O’Neill expressed distrust of federal regulatory agencies.

“I’m dealing with the FDA right now on the food chain that’s going on with bird flu right now,” she said. “No, I don't trust any of those agencies. It is about money and power and I am concerned about every single agency we’re all dealing with right now, it’s worse.”

DePeters countered, “You can’t get these drugs on the market unless you have proven patient safety and efficacy for our protection.”

Sprintz said treatments must be peer reviewed for effectiveness.

Beitlich said getting away from peer-reviewed medicine would diminish SMH.

“Do I think we can attract the best, smartest doctors providers if we get away from peer-reviewed medicine? Absolutely not.”

O’Neill agreed. “Peer reviews are extremely important. In my field in advocacy for children, our data comes from victims.”

She added that some of the agencies like the FDA need to be restructured, “There’s a deep, deep corruption in this country right now – very deep.”

DePeters pointed to the expiration dates of food and medicine.

“They’ve all been studied, follow the science people, evidence-based practice – Sarasota Memorial does,” she added. “And it’s for your protection.”

Rosenwasser, who had the last word on the issue, pointed to MK Ultra human experiments in the 1950s and '60s as well as the U.S. Public Health Service Tuskegee Syphilis Study of Black men with the Tuskegee Institute from 1932 to 1972.

“Research in the United States of America is funded by the United States Government and a lot of it is corrupt.”

Sarasota Tiger Bay will host a forum for At-Large Seat 2 candidates and Central Seat 1 candidates on June 20.

Republican At-Large Seat 2 candidates Kevin Cooper and Dr. Stephen Guffanti have confirmed, as has Democrat John A. Lutz.

Republican Central District Seat 1 candidates, incumbent Sarah Lodge and Tanya Marie Parus have been confirmed; Democrat Vicki Lynn Nighswander has yet to respond.

The League of Women Voters will host a candidate forum from 5:30 to 7 p.m., July 11 at Frances T. Bourne Jacaranda Library, 4143 Woodmere Park Boulevard, Venice.

Sarasota hospital board candidates weigh in at forum on privatization, abortion and more (2024)
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