RIVERVIEW — This round goes to St. Joseph's Hospital.
In the ongoing battle with South Bay Hospital for south Hillsborough's growing market, St. Joseph's scored a victory this week when a judge ruled it should be allowed to build a facility in Riverview.
State administrative law Judge J.D. Parrish disagreed with the state agency that had rejected St. Joseph's 2005 request to build a 90-bed hospital on Big Bend Road, a mile east of Interstate 75.
Citing population growth and crowded nearby hospitals, Parrish disputed the state's findings that a St. Joseph's satellite would siphon patients from other hospitals. Instead, it would improve access to emergency care and obstetrics services and reduce travel times for area patients, he wrote.
"Further, the new satellite will provide patients with a meaningful option for hospital services in the southeastern portion of Hillsborough County," Parrish wrote.
Parrish's order now goes back to the Agency for Health Care Administration, or AHCA, for a final decision.
"This is a step in the right direction," said St. Joseph's spokeswoman Lisa Patterson, who received the decision late Thursday. "There is a long road ahead, any way you look at it."
That's because in the state's complicated hospital-approval process, South Bay also holds permission to build a hospital on Big Bend Road. The AHCA ruled late last year that South Bay should build there, not St. Joseph's.
Here's how it all started:
In 2005, the AHCA turned down both St. Joseph's and South Bay's applications to build hospitals on Big Bend Road. It decided that the population couldn't support a new hospital there due to the proximity of South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center.
St. Joseph's appealed, leading to an administrative hearing last year and this week's favorable decision. It also resubmitted an application last year.
Meanwhile, South Bay altered its approach and refiled an application last year as well, but this time with a new strategy.
In its new application, South Bay argued that it had no more room to expand. It asked for permission to move its current 112-bed facility from Sun City Center to the Big Bend site. In return, it would leave behind an emergency room and diagnostic services for the retirement community.
Sun City Center residents were outraged. Some who can't drive anymore rely on their golf carts to visit spouses in the hospital. Others feared the prospect of being transported from a free-standing emergency room to a full-fledged hospital during a life-threatening illness.
But in December, the AHCA ruled in South Bay's favor, stating that its move made the best use of limited resources and avoided duplication of services. St. Joseph's appealed, and a hearing was set for February 2009.
But South Bay's approval could be called into question by Parrish's decision, which found that the growing population can support two hospitals.
South Bay officials said they were disappointed with Parrish's ruling but declined to comment further until they've studied the 41-page order.
"No matter what happens, we're still committed to Sun City Center and the South Shore area," said Melissa Morgan, South Bay's spokeswoman.
South Bay and other opponents have 15 days to respond to the AHCA, which will issue a final order within 45 days of receipt of the judge's decision.
AHCA officials would not speculate on how they might square their own approval of South Bay's request with the judge's recommended approval of St. Joseph's request.
Meanwhile, Sun City Center residents were thrilled.
Paul Wheat, president of the Sun City Center Community Association, said that residents were about to start a letter-writing campaign against South Bay's move. Now they'll add a few lines in favor of the judge's ruling.
Like other retirees, Jerry Mahoney thinks the competition from St. Joseph's would force South Bay to improve its services, ranked the worst among area hospitals that participated a recent patient satisfaction survey.
But Mahoney also worries about the long appeals process.
"We won't see any new beds until 2015," he said.
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or