One week ago, Martin Health Systems CEO Rob Lord stood on a picturesque boardwalk overlooking the St. Lucie River, and proclaimed his company’s support for Senate Bill 10, which, according to Lord, “…is a bold initiative to save Florida’s environmental future.” During the press conference, Lord admitted he was a long-time friend of Senate President Joe Negron.
But when asked by members of the local media why a hospital CEO would stake his company’s reputation on controversial environmental legislation, rather than, say, laws with a direct impact on Medicaid reimbursements or his hospital’s bottom line, Lord trotted out a rather dubious explanation:
“There are fundamental democratic and human decency issues involved here that demands all Floridians to voice their support,” Lord said. “Without the passage of SB 10, our health and quality of life are in great jeopardy.”
Lord claims his support for Joe Negron’s top legislative priority had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with an entirely different bill, Senate Bill 222, which could have had a substantial impact on Martin Health’s financial performance. Senate Bill 222 would have made it easier for other companies to compete against Martin Health for patients recovering from surgery. Fortunately for Lord and Martin Health, just two weeks before the press conference, a Senate committee completely gutted the bill, potentially netting Martin Health millions of dollars in patient fees. Lobbyists for Martin Health actively opposed the bill.
So was Rob Lord’s hastily planned press conference part of a quid pro quo?
A spokesman for Martin Health, Scott Samples, acknowledged that Martin Health opposed SB222, but vehemently denied any coordination or connection between the amendment of SB 222 and the SB10 press conference (Samples, it should be noted, is the husband of TC Palm opinion writer Eve Samples, who, like her husband’s boss, also supports SB10).
“There was no consultation with any member of the state legislature prior to the press conference and any insinuation otherwise is patently false,” Scott Samples said in an email. “Mr. Lord is a board member of the Florida Hospital Association. In that role he met with members of the Treasure Coast legislative delegation, including Sen. Negron, as part of the Florida Hospital Association’s Hospital Days held March 13-14. The brief conversations with those legislators focused solely on issues related to healthcare legislation.”
Whether there was a quid pro quo or not, Lord’s befuddling involvement with SB10 didn’t end with the press conference. This week, Lord dispatched Dr. Steven Parr to Tallahassee to testify about the ills Lake Okeechobee discharges. Parr is the director of emergency departments for Martin Health, and he claims he has many concerns about “water pollution,” particularly fecal bacteria, which he says leads to severe health problems – including a “big increase in heart attacks” in his community. To fight this, he urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to support Senate Bill 10.
Yet Parr made the same claims during Lord’s press conference a week earlier. There, members of the media in attendance didn’t give him the same free pass as the Florida Senate. When asked what evidence he had to support his claim that water flows from Lake Okeechobee were causing an increase in heart attacks and other serious health maladies, Parr flubbed the answer so badly that Lord, a lawyer by training, jumped in to try and rescue him:
Parr said a direct link between those symptoms and the algae couldn’t be proven. That caused Lord, a former attorney, to jump in, saying there is “overwhelming circumstantial evidence” of a connection.
“Waiting for definitive evidence is the wrong answer,” Lord said.
Of course, there’s plenty of definitive evidence suggesting that Lord and Parr are both wrong, and that the fecal bacteria they blame for health problems is not, in fact, from Lake Okeechobee, but from tens of thousands of homeowners’ leaky septic tanks in Martin and St. Lucie County. According to a report from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection:
“The sites at Golden Gate, Sandsprit Park, All American Ditch, Danforth Creek West, and Marina at Haney Creek indicate that there are areas of onsite disposal systems with possible leaching into the waterway. The combination of consistently elevated counts of fecal coliform bacteria, the presence of the human marker, and detections of sucralose and/or acetaminophen is indicative of a source of some level of untreated human wastewater.”
Martin Health said in an emailed statement that Lord “did not discuss the press conference with any Martin Health System board member prior to the press conference,” and added that the decision to hold the press conference was Mr. Lord’s alone.
Clearly, Lord’s decision to entangle his company in the scrum of South Florida water politics wasn’t well planned, especially if, as he claims, it had nothing to do with his hospital’s own bottom line.