Akshay desai and the rise and fall of universal health care grade 9 current electricity test


In August, Universal Health Care Group was crumbling. Regulators circled. Bankruptcy loomed. ¶ Still, founder and CEO Akshay Desai didn’t publicly hint at any problems. ¶ "As a businessman, I know all too well what it takes to make it in the private sector," he bragged at the time. ¶ It was vintage Desai — supremely confident, selective with the facts. ¶ The 55-year-old son of Indian educators built Universal on smarts and ambition. He was charming when he needed to be, domineering when he wanted. One day he was persuading investors to part with tens of millions of dollars, the next he was berating employees to tears.

He drove away top executives. He skirted rules. He declared that Universal members who asked for electric wheelchairs could use walkers instead. And it was Desai who pumped millions of dollars into six-figure BMWs, swank offices and executive bonuses as the company spiraled downward.

"In those days, in the ’80s, it wasn’t very sexy for doctors … to understand the business,” Desai told the Times in 2011. "But I always felt that if you understand the complexity of health care, you could do better personally and professionally and contribute to society.”

Desai, a geriatrician, opened a practice in St. Petersburg because of its large elderly population. He soon began managing the practices of other doctors, and in 2003 started a health maintenance organization, Universal Health Care, for people on Medicare and Medicaid.

By 2006, Desai had the stature — and connections — to satisfy a major ambition: starting his own insurance company. Also called Universal Health Care, it would market Medicare Advantage plans that used federal dollars and members’ enrollment fees to offer more services than regular Medicare. To get going, he needed investors.

Investors didn’t mind, or didn’t know, that Desai was embroiled in a legal fight with four doctors who claimed he had mismanaged their practices. Or that years before a judge had ordered him to pay $323,000 to another doctor who accused him of reneging on a shareholder agreement.

"I had known Dr. Desai through mostly Republican politics, got to like him and respect him,” recalls Jim Holton, a Madeira Beach lawyer who invested $250,000. "A whole group of folks were investing and reviewed it and thought it made good sense at the time.”

He used a $275,000 salary to lure a marketing president from Arizona. He signed up sales directors at $80,000 a pop, plus bonuses for every new customer. The company paid $507,000 for a nearby condominium. Executives received $120,000 BMW 750 iLs as company cars.

Desai invested his own money in a hotel-casino project on a Pacific island. He and Seema paid $1 million for a second house next to their multimillion marble and glass mansion on Tampa Bay. They hosted a huge party at Tropicana Field where hundreds of guests dined on curry, listened to Bollywood music and posed for photos with then-Gov. Charlie Crist, one of Desai’s closest political pals.

"I would always marvel at how he would go down the table and hit 32 people in a row and ask them really specific questions on how things were going,” Hoffman said. "He knew everything that was going on. Sometimes he was the smartest guy in the room.”

"Dr. Desai has always had a God complex," said Carol Hudson, a registered nurse who worked for Universal. "He could be very mean; yelling at people, throwing papers across a room, degrading and humiliating people in front of their co-workers."

In August, on the final day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Desai hosted a party at his home for several governors, including Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. He jetted around with Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, and bragged of his success at Universal.

Behind the facade, Desai was scrambling to sell the company. Regulators and Universal’s lender, BankUnited, realized Universal managers had deceived them about the company’s finances and weren’t about to sign off on a sale. Instead regulators seized the company.