Sarasota hospital critics face off with board member and hopeful in candidate forum (2024)

Tiger Bay forum becomes a Republican only affair after Democrat cancels plans to Zoom in for event

Earle KimelSarasota Herald-Tribune

Sarasota hospital critics face off with board member and hopeful in candidate forum (1)

Sarasota hospital critics face off with board member and hopeful in candidate forum (2)

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Echoes of Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic reverberated at Thursday afternoon’s Sarasota Tiger Bay forum for At-Large Seat 2 and Central District Seat 1 candidates for the Sarasota County Public Hospital Board.

Central District Seat 1 incumbent Sarah Lodge lived through the series of 2023 public hearings by the hospital both to discuss that response and an eventual study.

Her opponent Tanya Parus and At-Large Seat 2 candidate Dr, Stephen Guffanti were frequent hospital critics at those meetings and contended that the board turned a deaf ear to concerns raised by residents.

Kevin Cooper, the other Republican candidate seeking to succeed Tramm Hudson, identified with the hospital, frequently using “we” when addressing how Sarasota Memorial would handle a situation.

Sarasota hospital board forum becomes a Republican-only discussion

Sarasota Tiger Bay hosted candidates for At-Large Seats 1 and 3 on June 6. That forum included Alan Jerome Sprintz, a Democrat running for Al-Large Seat 1.

The forum turned into a Republican-only event, after Democrat John Lutz. canceled plans to participate virtually because of a last-minute scheduling conflict, while fellow Democrat Vicki Lynn Nighswander declined the invitation to participate.

That allowed Guffanti and Parus – both of whom have been linked to the health and medical freedom movement – more time to differentiate themselves from Cooper and Lodge, who are both backed by the Citizens for Healthcare Excellence Action Fund.

Moderator Jennifer Vigne, president and CEO of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, at times had each opponent respond to questions immediately after the other, to allow audience members to contrast those candidates more easily.

After covering topics ranging from hospital privatization to the role of third-party agencies such as the federal Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health and the definition of “medical freedom,” Vigne’s last question touched on just that topic – why them?

Choice A: Experienced physician vs. optimistic businessman

Guffanti cited his medical credentials to support his candidacy.

“I have experience with medicine and nobody on the board has experience with medicine and if my opponent is elected, that will be one more person that knows the numbers but – like I said – when money is the only criteria, people die, and that is why I’m running,” he said.

Cooper, the Army veteran and former president of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, pointed to his willingness to look to the future.

“Was Sarasota Memorial Hospital perfectly equipped to handle the pandemic? No,” Cooper said. “Did it learn a lot and is it more prepared to handle the next crisis? Absolutely.”

“We can re-litigate the past over and over again – and there was some heartbreaking things that happened here in Sarasota County, around the country and around the world – there’s no one that was going to dispute that; that’s not even up for debate,” he continued. “The question is, are we looking forward and what are we doing to best prepare our community for what comes in the future? I’m the candidate that’s doing that.”

Choice B: Experienced board member vs. empathetic outsider

Lodge – whose first four-year term was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, said she wanted to “continue to serve as we grow and expand and help our patients have the best care.”

She pointed to her health science degree and qualifications as a certified financial planner as qualifications to make her best suited for the job.

She later noted that the board already contains three nurses with medical knowledge, though Sharon Wetzler DePeters is on the ballot this year for At-Large Seat 1.

Parus, one of the founders of We the People Health and Wellness Clinic in Venice, referred to a personal capacity for empathy.

“I’ve done everything that I could to show support for everyone in this room and I am a kind soul,” Parus said. “I will always be there to listen to everybody.

“I keep driving that back because I feel completely a little upset with my opponent here because while I came before her and other board members I was dismissed quite often,” she added. “One of the things I did hear when we asked for a third-party investigation" into Sarasota Memorial's handling of COVID-19, "was all about fiduciary responsibility.

“I was very close to some of these people who lost their loved ones – that was not what they were thinking about.”

Candidates air views on future hospital growth plans

Vigne’s first question touched on Sarasota Memorial’s recent growth – including the opening of a new hospital campus in Venice, the Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute, Cornell Behavioral Health Pavilion; Kolschowsky Research and Education Institute and at least one and possibly two new hospital campuses in North Port – and the candidates views on the growth.

Lodge pointed to the importance of community input, such as a survey that found 52% of county residents were leaving Sarasota for oncology care.

“Because of that, we built the oncology tower that is continuing to expand.”

Parus countered by questioning whether SMH is growing too fast.

“We need to take a look back and see if the growth is actually sustainable – that’s one thing that I would want to do as a board member.”

Guffanti claimed that the growth has resulted in other problems.

“For me the most important ball that’s being dropped is communication with the private doctor,” Guffanti said, adding that care in the hospital is not always done in coordination with a patient’s physician.

Cooper, pointed out the importance of providing high quality healthcare – especially the expansion into North Port.

He then asserted that Parus’ concerns could be addressed by the fact that SMH is a $1.8 billion business with $3.2 billion in assets an A-1 credit rating from Moody’s, a AA credit rating from Fitch – "when we go bond to build a new expansion, we have a highly favorable interest rathe when are doing these things,” he said.

Guffanti called out for 2022 ouster of physician from hospital board

In fielding a question about the role of the hospital board – which sets policy for the Sarasota Memorial Health Care System – Guffanti cited the need for a doctor on the board and said that would lead to making sure that healthcare delivery trumped fiscal responsibility with respect to patient care.

“You don’t want your loved ones wondering if you have a politically correct disease or a politically incorrect disease,” Guffanti said,

Cooper responded: “The business of the board is the business of the hospital, it’s not the practice of medicine.

“We had a doctor on the board, as recently as 2022 and my opponent openly recruited a non-medically backgrounded opponent to run,” Cooper said, referencing Guffanti recruiting current board member Victor Rohe to run against then-incumbent Dr. Richard Rehmeyer, a board-certified ENT-otolaryngologist, to fill the Northern District Seat 2 position.

“The main reason we don’t have a doctor on board is we have people like my opponent that were involved in recruiting people to run against the doctor on the board.”

Views differ on contentious board meetings

Parus used that question to again voice displeasure on how the board handled public comment on the COVID-19 response, as well the employment of extra security and metal detectors at the board entrance.

“Many of these families that came here did not have their husband go home with them, they did not have their daughter, their father,” Parus said, then later added, “The hospital’s main point to be there is to save lives and every one of us could have died in that hospital and there were many people who did.”

A significant percentage of speakers at post-COVID hospital board meetings vented frustrations about healthcare received at hospitals elsewhere in the state, while the board's open microphone policy fostered widespread sharing on social media of the proceedings that prompted threats of violence and death threats – all of which were attributed to people outside of Sarasota County.

Those threats and general security concerns resulted in the presence of extra security and shortening of public comment, Lodge said.

“We did not do that until a year-and-a-half ago, when there was multiple threats – violent threats – to our doctors and our board members; it was awful," she added. "I watched doctors and medical staff cry in the audience, I had them coming to me with fear of their life.

“We are not safe on a daily basis; I have had people chase me into the elevator. It is not OK.”

Does medical freedom include the right to abortion or death with dignity?

In response to that question from Vigne, Parus said that means, “ensuring that individuals have the right to make informed decisions about their own health care, without undue influence or coercion.”

Parus added that she is pro-life.

Guffanti said, “Medical freedom means that doctors are free to advise on treatment and patients are free to seek a second opinion.

“And doctors need to be allowed to have differing opinions,” he added, then lauded the recent, 8-1 vote by the hospital board to uphold medical freedom.

“This is very unifying and SMH just needs doctors on its board who can point out when its medical freedom policy isn’t being upheld.”

Asked a question about the role of the Citizens for Healthcare Excellence Action Fund, Cooper chose to counter Guffanti's response.

“There’s two things that are really expedient in politics: one is fear and the other is revisionist history,” Cooper said. “People running under a medical freedom slate are trying to scare you into thinking you don’t have medical freedom and that’s simply not the case at the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System.

“Doctors recommend treatment, they recommend care plans but they do not force anything on patients,” he added.

“The most important things hospital board members need to be doing is making sure we’re operating in the confines of the law and that’s where it starts and stops.”

Lodge noted SMH never mandated vaccines for hospital employees and later referenced that in the original motion proposed by Rohe to adopt the vaccine-skeptic stance of Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, “We would never be able to give the COVID vaccine in the hospital or any of our facilities – that is removing your medical choice.”

SMH worked to comply with state and federal rules by giving the staff a choice between getting vaccinated or submitting an exemption form distributed by the Florida Department of Health in November 2021.

That motion was rewritten into one that did not address Ladapo’s stance at all, which Guffanti celebrated.

“We still don’t know who wrote the motion but I will not agree to put something in place that is removing your choice,” she added.

Strange accusation arises as all candidates pledge to keep Sarasota Memorial Hospital public

As part of a series of “lighting round” questions, all four candidates pledged to keep Sarasota Memorial a public hospital.

But Guffanti cited both the increased cost of campaigning for the hospital board and a vote earlier this month in Lee County by the elected board of Lee Health to pursue converting it from a public to a private nonprofit system while claiming that the current SMH board eyed selling the hospital to a private suitor.

“You might assume that your hospital is safe, because all the candidates are against privatization,” Guffanti said. “The incumbents have cut public input 70%; they are on the road to privatization.”

Lodge responded to Guffanti’s statement Friday by email.

“The claim that the Hospital Board has considered selling is not true,” Lodge wrote.”I never heard or had a discussion about privatizing, except when it was raised, almost as a threat, from folks aligned with Stephen Guffanti.

“The Lee Health vote was predicated by its inability to grow to meet the needs of patients and the community,” she added. “Sarasota Memorial has succeeded, and will continue to succeed, by putting our community first, including ensuring that we can continue to grow and provide top-quality care to the patients we serve.

“This does not now, and has never, included privatization.”

In response to whether they would accept guidance from the CDC and NIH, all four said the would – with qualifications.

For Parus, that meant the agencies not changing the guidelines – such as requirements for social distancing and masking – but also reserved the right to challenge those thoughts.

“I think we have to question some things, to an extent, just to remain human,” she added.

Guffanti said he would follow science-based guidelines.

Tiger Bay member Cathy Antunes followed that up with an expression of concern that the medical freedom movement was “departing from evidence-based medicine.”

“Are you talking about fringe medical treatments being adopted by the hospital and why would we do that? Why would we trust you given what you advocated for in the past?” she asked.

Guffanti responded by saying that he would follow CDC recommendations based on science but pointed out inconsistencies such as the wearing of masks with filtration too large to block viruses.

The other three candidates responded with qualified versions of “yes.”

Lodge stressed she "would leave that up to our medical executive committee, that is not my role as a board member.”

Cooper said he would agree as long as it was evidenced based.

“It’s about the relationship between the physician and the patient.”

League of Women Voters forum set for July 11

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.

That should be the same week residents will receive mail-in ballots.

Early voting for the Aug. 20 primary will be from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, Aug 10-18.

The winners of the Republican primary will face both Democrats and write-in candidates in November, thought the write-ins were a last-minute ploy meant to ensure the primaries would remain closed.

The winner of the At-Large Seat 1 primary between Sharon Wetzler DePeters and Tamzin Rosenwasser will face Sprintz, as well as write-in candidates Ethan Garrett, Suzanne Hatatah, and Jennifer Lee Zambrano in November.

The winner of the At-Large Seat 2 primary between Cooper and Guffanti will face Democrat John A. Lutz and write-in candidate Donna Hurlock in November.

The winner of the At-Large Seat 3, primary between Pam Beitlich and Mary Flynn O’Neill will face Democrat Dr. George Davis write-in candidate Curt Erlandson in November.

The winner of the Central District Seat 1 primary between Lodge and Parus will face Democrat Vicki Lynn Nighswander write-in candidate Emilio Carlesimo in November.

Sarasota hospital critics face off with board member and hopeful in candidate forum (2024)

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