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Hospitals ask courts to weigh in, again, on trauma center fight

Veteran hospitals like St. Joseph's contend that new hospitals are siphoning off lucrative trauma patients, threatening their ability to offset the expense of running a trauma center.

Times file (2010)

Veteran hospitals like St. Joseph's contend that new hospitals are siphoning off lucrative trauma patients, threatening their ability to offset the expense of running a trauma center.

For three years, Florida's most prominent hospitals have been fighting over who gets the business of treating the most seriously injured patients. Now, they are gearing up for what could be a decisive final round in 2014.

This week, several of the state's longest-operating trauma centers — including St. Joseph's Hospital and Tampa General Hospital — asked state courts to order that the new trauma centers in Pasco and Manatee counties be closed.

Among other things, the veteran hospitals contend that the new hospitals are siphoning off lucrative trauma patients, threatening their ability to offset the expense of running a trauma center — and keep busy enough to stay at the peak of their expertise. The new hospitals dispute this, saying they are bringing needed care to underserved communities.

The request to shut down the 2-year-old trauma centers at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point and Blake Medical Center, both operated by the HCA hospital chain, comes after a legal battle that began before they even opened.

State courts declared the 20-year-old rule used to approve the new trauma centers as out-of-date and invalid. As a result, the Florida Department of Health is rewriting its trauma rules, which is turning into another lengthy and contentious effort.

The state has allowed the new trauma centers to stay open throughout the fight. Opponents say that was wrong.

"The Department of Health has not acted, so we felt compelled to file a motion to have the department do what they should be doing," said Dr. Mark Vaaler, chief medical officer at St. Joseph's in Tampa.

After the court rulings, he contends, the new HCA centers "do not have a valid license and never did have a valid license."

State health officials could not be reached on Tuesday for response, because their offices were closed for the Christmas holiday. They have defended their actions at every legal step.

"We are determined to explore all of our options to keep our trauma center open and saving lives," said Randy McVay, chief executive officer of HCA's Ocala Regional Medical Center, home to the chain's newest trauma center, in a statement on behalf of the company. He said HCA was "appalled" by the efforts of other hospitals to close its new trauma centers.

Last week, state officials held in Miami the 12th workshop in their yearlong effort to update the state's trauma maps. They also announced plans to hold a "negotiation" on Jan. 23 in Tallahassee involving trauma center representatives from all sides.

"On behalf of injured patients and their families in Florida, the Department is committed to working together with all stakeholders to heal divisions within the trauma center community," State Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong said in a news release.

Officials from Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, also involved in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment.

Contact Letitia Stein at lstein@tampabay.com.

Hospitals ask courts to weigh in, again, on trauma center fight 12/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:56pm]
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