Blood Money

Every time you donate, it's money in the pockets of two South Florida companies. Big money.

The problems haven't slowed South Florida Blood Banks' expansion efforts. The West Palm firm claims it has taken more than 50 percent of the Broward market and 45 percent of the Miami-Dade market. Community Blood Centers officials say those numbers are exaggerated and claim South Florida Blood Banks managed to capture a smaller fraction of the market by offering blood as low as $60 a pint.

These days it isn't clear who's number one. Four years ago Community Blood Centers collected 20,000 more pints per year than it averages now. But Rouault claims his firm is still solidly on top, supplying blood to 43 hospitals while its competitor delivers to only 17. South Florida Blood Banks, meanwhile, claims it supplies 29 hospitals, but declines to provide details on how many pints of blood it collects annually.

Bags of red blood cells await shipment to area hospitals (top); sickle cell anemia sufferer Michael Piquion (bottom) relies on regular transfusions and support from his family; Community Blood Centers president Dr. Charles Rouault (middle) contributing to the cause
top photos by Colby Katz bottom photo by Steve Sat
Bags of red blood cells await shipment to area hospitals (top); sickle cell anemia sufferer Michael Piquion (bottom) relies on regular transfusions and support from his family; Community Blood Centers president Dr. Charles Rouault (middle) contributing to the cause

To get more blood, South Florida Blood Banks last year set its sights on the Miami-Dade Public Schools, which have traditionally been the region's largest blood source. Community Blood Centers had held exclusive rights to draw blood there since it bought out the Red Cross four years ago; during that period it collected an average of 14,000 pints per year, worth about $2.8 million when sold to hospitals.

To win the schools contract, South Florida Blood Banks hired a trio of Miami's most accomplished and expensive lobbyists: former Miami-Dade County Manager Sergio Pereira, former Miami Herald reporter Dusty Melton, and influential lawyer George Knox. (Melton won't discuss how much the three were paid or exactly what they did to lobby the school board.)

To begin negotiations, South Florida Blood Banks promised the school board more scholarship money for donations than the $32,000 yearly its competitor had given. When the school board shot down that idea, the West Palm company went to court. This past August, Tallahassee administrative Judge Claude B. Arrington ruled the district had used a "tainted" process to select Community Blood Centers. In response board members gave the West Palm firm access to fifteen high schools; Community was granted approval to recruit donors at twenty others. As part of the new deal, the blood banks will pay the district $20 per pint for scholarships, which will cost each of them nearly $300,000 per year.

When recruiting students for drives, school officials and blood bank workers don't mention the competition between the companies, nor the cash involved. "No, it's not about the money and we don't discuss that," says Diana Rizikow Venturino, who's in charge of the blood-donation program for the school district. "It's about teaching community service."

David Louis, a blood-drive recruiter for South Florida Blood Banks, was standing in a deli line at a Winn-Dixie on a lunch break this past January when he had an epiphany. In his beefy hands, which match his wide frame, he held a fifteen-page report he had stayed up the prior night compiling. It included graphs and charts -- it was a Jerry Maguire-style document, the kind that's supposed to change things that have been wrong for a long time.

The document declared that South Florida Blood Banks ignores minority donors, labeling them less likely to have acceptable blood because they more frequently have diseases or low iron. Supervisors decline to hold blood drives in minority neighborhoods, Louis claimed, and refuse to provide Haitian interpreters. The report outlined ways for the blood bank to target African-American and Haitian communities and boasted of the blood that could be gained by this often ignored, sixteen-percent chunk of the South Florida population.

Before compiling the analysis, Louis, son of a Haitian father and Bahamian mother, contends he had proposed the ideas to his supervisor, Sharon Briggs, who had ignored them. So on the spur of the moment that day in January, he says he grabbed his company-issued two-way radio and called the firm's head honcho, John Flynn. "I was told he had an open-door policy, so I figured, why not?" Louis recalls. "The first thing he asked me was if I knew what the chain of command was." Flynn quickly brushed him off by telling him to hand over the report to Briggs.

Louis and his old friend and colleague Duncan Anches say the report, and the corporate-etiquette blunder, were not forgotten. According to the pair: At the next meeting of blood recruiters in March, Flynn showed up. He'd never been to such a gathering before. Soon after arriving, Flynn began discounting the ideas outlined in Louis's report. The CEO said collecting blood from minorities wasn't "cost effective." The two recall Flynn saying, "This is a corporation, and the bottom line is we are here to make money." Not long after the meeting, the two say managers told them to sign a contract that forbade them from doing the same kind of work for a competitor. They refused and were sacked. They have since taken jobs at Community Blood Centers.

South Florida Blood Banks board member Curt Lyman says it wouldn't make business sense to disregard potential donors. He contends the blood bank initiated an advertising campaign two years ago to attract more minority donors. But the firm declined a New Times request to inspect documents, which Lyman said likely exist, urging employees to target minority donors.

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