TALLAHASSEE — Florida's second-highest court on Friday ruled in favor of Tampa Bay's longtime trauma hospitals in a high-profile fight over who treats the most critically injured.
Bayfront Medical Center, Tampa General Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital challenged the state's decision to allow the HCA hospital chain to open trauma centers at hospitals in Pasco and Manatee counties.
They argued that the new centers siphoned away patients, hurting the quality and finances of their existing programs. That case is now bolstered by the 1st District Court of Appeal's finding that a 20-year-old state rule used to justify the new trauma programs is out-of-date and invalid.
After the ruling, state health officials said they would end their legal fight and begin holding workshops "to develop an inclusive, sustainable trauma system that distributes trauma centers throughout Florida."
But the court ruling doesn't mean that the HCA trauma centers — now operating at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson and Blake Medical Center in Bradenton — must close.
In a related but separate case, the existing trauma hospitals are seeking a hearing before the Department of Health to challenge its provisional approval last year of the HCA programs.
Disappointed HCA officials said they will ask the appellate court to reconsider its ruling.
"We feel it is incorrect and not in the best interest of patients in Florida …," said J.C. Sadler, vice president of marketing and communications for HCA's West Florida Division in a statement.
She noted that HCA anticipates no change to its current trauma operations at Bayonet Point and Blake, which have treated more than 2,000 patients since opening about a year ago.
HCA is the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, formerly headed by Gov. Rick Scott. It is running its new statewide network of five trauma centers in partnership with the University of South Florida medical school.
So far, St. Petersburg's Bayfront has born the brunt of the losses from the HCA competitors. From January to July, Bayfront saw a 68 percent decrease in trauma patients from outside Pinellas County, according to hospital figures. In-county volume rose slightly, but not enough to make up the difference.
"The addition of trauma centers, without additional volume, threatens all of the area hospitals' ability to provide that care effectively," said Kanika Tomalin, Bayfront's vice president of strategic planning, calling the court ruling "a substantial step in our ongoing effort to overturn the designation of these two trauma centers."
Last fall, a Tallahassee administrative court judge first declared invalid the 1992 state rule used to approve the HCA trauma centers, saying it failed to take into account advancements such as more helicopters to fly trauma patients greater distances and improved life support capabilities in ambulances.