Health care advances even amidst pandemic

UF Health The Villages Freestanding Emergency Department is just one place the UF Health care team is making its presence felt. UF Health doctors in residency are at both local hospitals, in The Villages and Leesburg.

Residents can prepare to welcome new health care opportunities in near future at a variety of levels in The Villages, despite trying economic conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year and a significant bump in impact fees on new construction in Sumter County that goes into effect this summer.  The community’s largest primary care provider, as well as multiple speciality care options are expanding their reach, and more hospital beds could be the horizon.  Long-established practices like Tri-County Heart Institute at the Sharon L. Morse Medical Building and Village Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery at Laurel Manor Professional Plaza are expanding in the community. New practices like the Dermatology Institute & Skin Cancer Center at Brownwood and LifeStance Health, a provider of mental health services at the Morse medical building, opened in the first quarter this year.

Medical support surge

Around two dozen health care providers are either in the planning stage, under construction or preparing for an opening just within the first three months of the year in The Villages or on the periphery in Wildwood, according to a Daily Sun review of lease notices and city, county and state planning records.

The Villages Health, which already operates six primary care centers and two speciality care centers, will add a ninth when Lake Deaton Plaza Care Center opens. It will be located near the newly opened Chitty Chatty Bridge across State Road 44. A fall opening is anticipated, said Bob Trinh, CEO of The Villages primary and multispecialty care provider.

“It’s a primary care center for people who move into the new area south of SR 44 and then establish themselves as residents,” he said. “We want to establish with them as their primary care provider. Once they’ve established themselves, they typically need a physician. So, we want to be here when people move in to establish themselves and help take care of them to enjoy the lifestyle that brought them here to The Villages.”

This project was started before three newly elected county commissioners voted to increase road impact fees on such new construction projects in Sumter County by 75%.  Health providers planning future healthcare facilities will have to weigh the added startup costs this creates on new construction, especially large-scale projects like a proposed new hospital.

The existing projects, like the new care center for The Villages Health, offer some insight into why medical revenue grew year over year by about 182% in 2020 in just Sumter County, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to state revenue data. Lake County medical revenue grew by about 50% during the same time period. In contrast, total medical revenue for all 67 counties decreased by about 2%.

Anchor on health care landscape

One of the big contributors to Sumter’s gain is the Center for Advanced Healthcare at Brownwood, a 285,000-square-foot multispecialty care center that opened in June 2020, said Scott Renick, The Villages director of commercial development.

“Toward the end of last year, late third quarter and early fourth quarter, the patient traffic at the CAHB was significantly more than we expected,” he said. “It was at a level that was surprising to most of us, given what was going on with social distancing and that the vaccines hadn’t been rolled out, yet. That’s the single biggest health care delivery in 2020, and the recent past.”

This next new phase is just the start of something exciting, Renick said.

“We have providers in many different specialities that are expanding and serving the community,” he said. “Outside the CAHB, we’re seeing steady demand from all types of providers for health care space. When you look at the nature of our demographics, we’re going to have a higher percentage of needs across almost all subspecialities.”

UF Health presence expands

Resident demand for quality health care explains why The Villages entered a partnership with UF Health, which operates UF Health Shands at Gainesville and UF Health Jacksonville, to build a new acute-care hospital and a health care campus in the development area west of Marsh Bend Trail and north of County Road 470, said Marlene O’Toole, a member of the UF Health Central Florida advisory board. The advisory board serves UF Health The Villages Hospital, UF Health The Villages Hospital Freestanding Emergency Department and UF Health Leesburg Hospital.

UF Health, which has yet to break ground on the project, already is sending newly minted physicians to serve internships at The Villages and Leesburg hospitals, said O’Toole, a former state representative who lives in the Village Mira Mesa.

“That’s one of the biggest benefits we’re going to get from the UF Health partnership,” she said. “We’re getting physicians coming out of school with the latest greatest knowledge when they graduate.”

What causes O’Toole to pause, however, is her recollection of The Villages health care industry in 2005, when she and husband, Ed, moved to Mira Mesa. She recalls having to drive to Leesburg for her health care needs.

“There were less than a handful of physicians in The Villages at that time and nearly all of them located on the east side in Lady Lake,” she said.

Another acute care possibility

Another hospital provider may be eying Sumter County. Although HCA officials did not respond to inquiries, the national hospital group and parent company of Ocala Health, did acquire multiple, adjoining properties in the Trailwinds development of Wildwood for $18.8 million in March with an entitlement from city officials to allow for up to a 300-bed hospital. HCA has not filed a site plan with the city.

A longtime physician is at work on his growth plans. Dr. Thi Tran, a board certified dermatologist who founded Village Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in 2004, was recruited by The Villages to relocate his practice from Tampa.

Patient demand remains constant, Tran said.

“We have a full schedule,” he said. “But we still can accommodate people’s needs. Now, they’re being accommodated faster rather than waiting longer for an appointment.”

Tran’s plans for a new building in Buffalo Ridge Plaza targets not only his needs as a physician, but also accommodates the increasing resident demand for the services of his wife, Emma Kumley, owner of The Movement Studio in Oxford and a nationally certified Pilates teacher.

“From a medical standpoint, the growth we’re seeing is south of State Road 44, and will continue as The Villages expands and builds new homes southward,” he said. “It parallels population growth in Sumter County and correlates not only with medical but all business groups across all spectrums.”

What complicates matters for Tran is the increased medical practice competition for health care workers.

“With this expansion, our biggest challenge as a small office is to compete for competent staff,” he said. “I take pride in our staff, but it’s a challenge. It takes a lot of time to put together a competent team.”

That challenge comes even as the number of health care workers grew considerably over the past 10 years in just The Villages of Sumter County, according to the latest data available from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Around 6,500 health care employees worked in Sumter County as of June 30, 2020. That’s a 46% increase in five years, and a 141% increase during the previous 10 years.

Not every practice is expanding because of patient demand.

At Tri-County Heart Institute, board certified cardiologist Dr. Nitza I. Alvarez is expanding her practice to provide women with preventative heart care, said Jose Rivera-Gonzalez, office administrator.

“The reason we’re growing, we’re specializing in women’s heart disease, which in this area and overall in the nation has been neglected,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 655,000 Americans die each year from heart disease — one of every four deaths — and costs about $219 billion annually in health care services, medicines and lost productivity due to death.

“Fifty percent of those deaths are preventable,” Rivera-Gonzalez said. “Dr. Alvarez’s motto is ‘prevent the stent.’ Yes, as The Villages grows, the more we’re going to grow. But we want to grow through preventative medicine by getting to patients when they’re in their 50s and 60s.”

Specialty Editor David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or