Appeals court says challenge to HCA trauma centers should proceed

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 A state appeals court Thursday sided with hospitals in the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville areas in part of a long-running battle aimed at shutting down new trauma centers approved by the Florida Department of Health, reports Jim Saunders.

The ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal will clear the way for challenges to the continued operation of trauma centers that opened in 2011 at Blake Medical Center in Manatee County and Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Pasco County. Another disputed trauma center at Orange Park Medical Center in Clay County has already been shut down for another reason.

Tampa General Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg and UF Health Jacksonville have fought the new trauma centers for more than two years. Those hospitals, which operate trauma centers, have argued they would be hurt by the new trauma facilities, which would siphon off patients and compete for specialists.

The dispute has led to a complex maze of legal actions. But Thursday’s ruling was a second important victory for the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville-area hospitals as they seek to shut down the new facilities, which are at hospitals affiliated with the HCA health-care chain.

The ruling stemmed from petitions that the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville-area hospitals filed to challenge the Department of Health’s approvals of the new trauma facilities. The department rejected the petitions, contending that the four hospitals didn’t have legal “standing” to challenge the approvals.

But a three-judge panel of the appeals court disagreed and said the state Division of Administrative Hearings should take up the challenges.

“We determine that DOH erred in dismissing the challenges for lack of standing because the substantial interests of the existing trauma care centers are within the zone of interest protected by the trauma care statutes, which require DOH to consider the impact that new trauma centers will have on existing trauma centers,” the court said. 

The full ramifications of the ruling were not immediately clear late Thursday afternoon. But it comes after the appeals court last year upheld an administrative law judge’s decision that the Department of Health had used an invalid rule in approving the new trauma centers.

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