TAMPA — A little more than a year ago, Gov. Rick Scott warned Moffitt Cancer Center and two other Florida research institutions they would lose state funds if they tried to franchise their brand names.
Little came of that warning other than criticism for Scott.
Now he has signed legislation that could help other cancer hospitals burnish their own brand names.
Florida will start putting its own seal of approval — the "Cancer Center of Excellence Award" — on facilities that meet certain quality standards. The centers may use the designation in marketing materials for up to three years and also get a leg up on competing for state research funding.
But the standards have yet to be developed. And while the program is winning some praise, it has critics, too, from Moffitt to a group of non-hospital based cancer care clinics.
At Moffitt, which promotes its status as Florida's only hospital designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute, officials say they worry about how patients will interpret the new state imprimatur.
"If the bar is too low, it'll give patients a false sense of security," said Jamie Wilson, Moffitt's vice president of government relations. "We're just concerned from a patient's perspective."
To qualify for the award, cancer centers must first be accredited by the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons. That could leave out community cancer centers that are not in hospitals, which don't typically have that accreditation.
"The large majority of cancer care is provided in community cancer centers," said Ted Okon, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit trade group Community Oncology Alliance. "When this becomes hospitals-centric, that's totally out of touch with what's happening."
According to its sponsor, the legislation has some origins in the controversial warning that Scott gave Moffitt and two other nonprofit cancer centers — University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and Shands Cancer Hospital in Gainesville — last year about expanding their brands to other institutions. He said they were competing unfairly with others, including for-profit centers.
Moffitt did fine in this year's legislative session, receiving nearly $17.5 million in state research and education funding — more than last year's $15 million. But the letter, which was criticized by some as an effort to favor for-profit facilities over not-for-profit academic centers, had an impact.
"The governor's letter last summer regarding more accountability of state biomedical funding and more coordination among cancer centers was one of many factors in the development of the bill," state Sen. Anitere Flores, the Miami Republican who sponsored the legislation, wrote in an email response to an interview request from the Times.
More than 70 hospitals could apply for the award. Their ranks include for-profit HCA's Bayonet Point Medical Center and Medical Center of Trinity in Pasco County, as well as those in the not-for-profit BayCare Health System.
Tim McMahon, director of oncology and cardiology care at BayCare's St. Anthony's Hospital, said he thinks the designation could get hospitals to make significant investments in their cancer programs.
"The reality is that Moffitt doesn't need to be concerned about this type of legislation," said McMahon. "In fact, they should be applauding it. ... I can appreciate why they have a little bit of concern, but in the long run Moffitt can't take care of every cancer patient in the state of Florida."
The goal of the awards program is to encourage excellent cancer care, the legislation says, "and help Florida providers be recognized nationally as a preferred destination for quality cancer care."
Dr. Alan List, Moffitt's president and chief executive officer, said he wasn't sure how a state seal would accomplish the latter goal.
"If more people are going to participate, it'd be great," he said. "I still don't think it'll mean people from Nebraska will be flying in for care."
The qualifications for the award will include participating in research trials, having a multidisciplinary team that reviews treatment options for each patient and offering counseling and services, said Dr. Thomas George, an oncologist. He is chairman of the Florida Cancer Control and Research Advisory Council, which includes representatives from Moffitt.
A new committee, not yet named, will include members of that council to devise standards for the state cancer award.
"We're taking this very seriously," said George, director of the University of Florida's gastrointestinal oncology program. "It has the potential to really raise the bar and to provide some assurances to patients and their families."
Hospitals often use accreditations and awards in their marketing materials, though it's unclear how much significance it holds for patients. Dr. Harvey Greenberg, who runs the cancer program at Florida Hospital Tampa and also works at Tampa Bay Radiation Oncology in Brandon, said he thinks the award program could help since it should show facilities have met high standards.
"Patients seem to notice this stuff," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.