First of two parts.
Most everybody knows this axiom: Don't pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.
Is it possible that Norman Anderson never heard it?
Anderson is an Ocala
doctor who founded the Robert Boissoneault
Institute and later opened a branch in The Villages, the retirement community of more than 85,000 that sprawls across Lake, Sumter and Marion counties.
Anderson said he came to The Villages in June 1999 at the invitation of H. Gary Morse, whose late wife, Sharon, was one of Anderson's patients. Morse, the wealthy head of the powerful family that owns and is still developing The Villages, also became his business partner.
Morse, however, long ago relinquished his interest in Anderson's business, but the doctor said there were "no hard feelings" at the time.
That's why Anderson was stunned when Morse emerged as the prime mover behind a proposed Moffitt Cancer Center at The Villages, a partnership between the prestigious
-based research facility and Central Florida Health Alliance, owners of The Villages Health System.
'I wrote the check'
The reclusive Villages developer suddenly is in the spotlight, starring as head cheerleader in a disingenuous, smarmy campaign urging residents of the retirement community to donate $6.3 million to buy equipment for the center, which is set to open in the fall.
An unrelenting publicity blitz in the developer-owned
Villages Daily Sun
declares repeatedly that the center is needed because such treatment isn't available to Villages residents now. Moffitt's equipment and methods are portrayed as top-of-the-line for cancer sufferers.
Understandably, Anderson is furious, considering that his cancer center snuggles up to The Villages Health System. He said he doesn't care about the looming competition but said his facility, which has been serving Villages patients for 12 years, offers the same treatments by staff who hold the same credentials using the same machines as Moffitt intends.
"I know that for a fact," Anderson told a group of more than 400 people at a recent meeting in The Villages. "Because I wrote the check for $2.5 million."
Anderson is trying to fight back. He's speaking at night before various Villages groups, and he has bought full-page advertising with the headline, "Clarifying Misleading Information."
But the doctor isn't making much headway trying to swim against a tsunami of warm and fuzzy support The Villages has created for Moffitt.
The problem is that, unlike Morse, Anderson does not own a newspaper he can use to bombard residents. Anderson has to pay for advertising in the
— and he's been doing plenty of that since November.
Both Anderson and the smaller of The Villages two homeowners associations have criticized the
for its reporting that boosts the desirability of the Moffitt proposal. Could that be because the paper is the main tool for the fundraising drive?
The paper's executive editorial manager did not respond to a request for comment.
But consider, for example, the claim that the developer donated the land for the center. Morse was quoted in the Sept. 16 edition saying that he "committed to finance and construct the building," leaving residents with the impression that Morse is one generous guy.
Stripping away myths
A simple check of property records, however, shows that the land has not changed hands. Indeed, even written statements from Central Florida Health Alliance acknowledge that the Morses will retain ownership of the property and that the alliance will pay rent to the family for use of the building that now is under construction. With the rah-rah dispelled, this situation is revealed for what it really is — an uncomplicated business deal between a guy who owns a lot of commercial property and a company eager to expand in a lucrative market.
Neither Villages spokesman Gary Lester nor the chairman of The Villages Health System Foundation returned calls for comment.
More myths need to be stripped away before residents consider the facts around the dueling cancer centers.
First, Villagers aren't just great golfers who know how to throw a jammin' party. They're also an incredible business opportunity for medical providers. There's no intent here to be shocking or crass — simply to point out what seems obvious but increasingly is overlooked: Most Villages residents are covered by government insurance called
, and many carry supplemental policies.
Hospitals can whine all they want about decreasing Medicare reimbursements, but the truth is that when the elderly get sick, the docs and the hospitals get paid. They get paid on a reasonable schedule without begging or collection companies. They get paid consistent amounts for specified treatments. The senior medical market is nothing like the general population, where so many working-class people have no insurance at all and certainly no money for expensive cancer radiation treatments.
Second, hospitals may be nonprofit under Internal Revenue Service rules, but that doesn't mean hospital executives work for chump change. Consider that the CEO of the Central Florida Health Alliance made $450,000 and the guy who runs Moffitt pulled in just under $1 million in 2008, the most recent tax returns available for the two organizations.
Lots of money at stake
This would be an observer's first clue these are intensely competitive businesses that want a secure anchor in a sociologically unique market.
A lot of money is at stake in this scenario, and as the community goes about trying to assess what arrangement will yield the best treatment, that singularly salient fact shouldn't get buried beneath full-page color pictures of fancy machines whose uses few people understand and sentimental entreaties to donate to them.
On Wednesday, we'll take a look at what the cancer centers are offering, whether there's a reason for residents to invest in equipment and what they as a community can expect to get when the construction dust settles.