TALLAHASSEE — After rushing through public testimony and debate, a Senate committee approved a bill that protects three HCA-owned trauma centers but also caps the activation fees they can charge patients.
The Senate's Health Policy Committee approved SB 1276 with a 7-2 vote, with one Republican and one Democrat in opposition. The bill allows trauma centers at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Pasco County, Blake Medical Center in Manatee County and Ocala Regional Medical Center in Marion County to remain in operation despite legal challenges by hospitals.
It also creates a one-year, $15,000 cap on trauma response fees in Florida and establishes a one-year moratorium on new trauma centers. A yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that HCA's average trauma response fee — a charge meant to offset the cost of high-tech care — is $28,000, by far the highest in the state.
HCA has 25 registered lobbyists in Tallahassee to represent its interests, but on Tuesday some testimony on its behalf came from Ocala officials and residents speaking up for their hospital. None of them expressed any concern about costs.
The company now has five Florida trauma centers and wants to open more.
It is unclear how the Senate bill's moratorium would affect those plans.
Also, HCA's Orange Park Medical Center was forced to close its trauma center in February 2013 because it fell short of state standards. The Senate bill could help that center to reopen, a lobbyist for safety net hospitals argued.
"The language here today very likely could grandfather in Orange Park, a trauma center that has been reviewed and determined by the agency not to meet the quality standards that you enacted," Mark Delegal said.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, accused Delegal of spreading misinformation about the Orange Park hospital, but the lobbyist countered that he was only pointing out loopholes in the bill. Sen. Denise Grimsley, the Sebring Republican who authored an amendment creating the fee cap and moratorium, said the intent is not to allow Orange Park to skirt the rules. She said she would be willing to address Delegal's concerns, but the committee didn't entertain any changes during the meeting.
The dissenting votes were cast by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Joyner criticized the size of the trauma fees, saying "they run the gamut from ridiculous to super ridiculous." She also said it would be wrong to increase the number of trauma centers in Florida, both because of cost and because too many centers would dilute the quality of care.
"We don't need that many trauma centers," she said. "There has got to be another way."
Bean said he disagreed with the Legislature stepping in while court cases were pending and state agencies were still considering the disputes. "There are just so many questions still surrounding trauma, but it passed," he said after the vote.
The three HCA centers are being challenged by long-standing trauma centers, including Tampa General Hospital, that contend the state acted improperly in allowing them to open.
Grimsley said she hopes the bill can help end the costly court battle.
The House's version, HB 7113, solely focuses on the grandfathering issue and doesn't have the moratorium or cap on fees. Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, said she hopes the House version will be amended to mirror what the Senate has done.
Contact Tia Mitchell at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]