Tampa Bay residents are being bombarded by menacing advertisements that accuse three leading hospitals of trying to "pull the plug on lifesaving care all over Florida."
Tampa General, St. Joseph's and Bayfront hospitals are the targets of a political-style campaign spearheaded by the 60 Plus Association, a conservative advocacy group that doesn't disclose where it gets its money. But it has acknowledged spending $250,000 on its "Save Our Trauma Centers" drive, with companion ads airing in Ocala and Tallahassee.
The attack ads mark the most in-your-face round yet in the state's long-simmering brawl over who gets to run the trauma centers that treat the most critically injured patients. The intensifying fight has pitted long-established trauma centers against the powerful HCA hospital chain, whose new statewide trauma network includes hospitals in Pasco and Manatee counties.
At stake, the ads suggest, is life or death.
Sirens flash as a medical team races through a hospital with a stretcher. "Trauma care centers save thousands of lives," the ad begins, "but Tampa General, Bayfront and St. Joseph's want to close our local trauma centers. They're suing to shut down Bayonet Point and Blake Medical trauma centers."
"Don't let them put their bottom line ahead of our lives," it warns, fading to a flat-lining heartbeat.
The hospitals targeted by the ads all say they are little more than "false advertising," in the words of Dr. Steven Epstein, trauma medical director at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.
The mini-medical drama glosses over the complexities of a 3-year-old fight involving more than a dozen lawsuits and almost as many hospitals.
Courts have said that the state rules used to approve the new HCA trauma centers were outdated. The Florida Department of Health has spent a year retooling its trauma maps, but the proposed changes remain contested. The major players are meeting in Tallahassee on Thursday to try to negotiate a break in the impasse.
A similar ad is now airing in Ocala and Gainesville, where UF Health Shands Hospital has challenged another new HCA trauma center.
The 60 Plus Association would not reveal the donors behind the ads. The organization, founded in 1992, characterizes itself as a "conservative alternative" to the AARP, the senior advocacy group. Its top issues include ending the federal estate tax and repealing Obamacare.
As a politically active nonprofit, 60 Plus can spread its influence without having to reveal the source of its funding. In recent years, the Virginia-based organization has received millions from groups tied to the conservative Koch brothers, according to research by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
By phone, the Times asked HCA whether it funded the advertisements or coordinated messages with the 60 Plus Association. The company issued a statement that didn't address that question. In an email, the Times again asked about HCA's relationship to 60 Plus and whether it provided financing or messaging.
A spokeswoman declined to answer.
"We stand with 60 Plus and the tens of thousands of Florida seniors who adamantly oppose shutting down life-saving trauma centers to protect the profits of Tampa General, Shands UF, St. Joseph's and Bayfront," a HCA spokeswoman said in a statement. "We think it's irresponsible and incredibly short-sighted for these hospitals to put profits ahead of quality, accessible trauma care."
Of the targeted hospitals, three — Tampa General, St. Joseph's and Shands UF — are not-for-profit. HCA is a for-profit company, as now is Bayfront, which was recently purchased by Health Management Associates.
HCA signaled that it will be looking to state lawmakers this spring to settle the ongoing fight.
"As the Legislature continues to look at access to trauma care for all Floridians, we hope they will address the dozens of legal challenges that continue to plague the ability of our state's trauma system to save more lives," it stated.
The 60 Plus ads aim to drum up grass roots support by directing viewers to visit saveour traumacenters.org, where they can generate a letter in support of the new trauma centers to send to state representatives.
The hospitals opposing the HCA expansion have long said that more isn't necessarily better when it comes to trauma care, where medical experts need to treat a sufficient volume of trauma cases annually to stay at the top of their game.
It's purely coincidence that Bayfront has been airing advertisements highlighting its emergency room services, officials said. The Bayfront ads are part of a branding campaign for the regional network of hospitals now sharing its name.
No airwave counteroffensive is in the works for Tampa's two trauma centers, Tampa General and St. Joseph's. Both remain committed to their opposition of the HCA trauma expansion.
"When you can't support your position legally and medically," Tampa General spokesman John Dunn said, "then you will resort to emotionally charged fear tactics to try to win your argument."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com.