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Battle over trauma centers continues with new lawsuit

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Another high-profile court fight over new trauma centers opening in Florida has begun in Tallahassee, even as lawmakers prepare to tinker with state law governing such facilities. 

As a pre-emptive strike, Delray Medical Center in Delray Beach and St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach last week sued the Florida Department of Health in Leon County Circuit Civil court. They both operate Level 1 trauma centers—the higher level of trauma care.

At issue is an application from JFK Medical Center in Atlantis to open a new Level 2 trauma center. Both trauma levels require round-the-clock availability to surgeons, for instance, but a Level 2 doesn’t have to engage in research or offer a medical residency program.

If JFK opens a center, that will “divert patients and revenue away” from the plaintiffs, the complaint said, leaving them “irreparably harmed.” They’re now seeking an injunction against the department, saying it doesn’t have the authority to consider the JFK application.

The opening of new trauma centers has stoked discord for the last few several years, with hospitals lobbing accusations of unfair competition at each other.

In 2014, an administrative law judge upheld regulations that came after three years of legal and legislative wrangling, much of which related to newly opened trauma centers in Pasco, Manatee and Marion counties.

The Legislature divided the state into 19 trauma service areas and capped the statewide total of trauma centers at 44, with each area allowed a certain number. There were 33 centers, including for pediatric care, as of mid-2016

Lawmakers again have introduced trauma center-related legislation for the 2017 Legislative Session. One bill (HB 1077), set to be heard Monday by the House Health Innovation Subcommittee, would do away with the trauma service areas and place no limit on the number of trauma centers.

Delray and St. Mary’s are the only trauma centers in their area, the suit said. All three facilities are within 10-15 miles of each other in Palm Beach County.

Further, the county’s Health Care District trauma plan says the area is “adequately served by the current trauma system,” the complaint said.

Since there’s no need for another center, the plaintiffs want the court to enjoin the Health Department from reviewing JFK’s request. They said they had asked the department to reject the application, but officials there did not respond.

Delray and St. Mary’s are represented by Tallahassee attorney Michael Glazer of the Ausley & McMullen law firm. The case was assigned to Circuit Judge Charles Dodson.

Court records don’t reflect whether the department has yet been served with the suit, and state agencies decline comment on pending litigation. 

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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