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Children aided by care standards

After years of collaboration, Florida's health-care regulators are on the verge of proposing new standards of care governing all hospitals that treat children. These pediatric standards _ the first-ever in the nation _ are sure to draw fire, especially from hospitals not currently meeting the highest standards. But they move Florida in the right direction. Once established, the standards would likely improve children's services, encourage hospitals to work together and give parents some assurance that facilities marketing themselves as capable of treating children live up to that billing.

The standards, soon to be published by the state Agency for Health Care Administration, would set minimum criteria, in areas such as staffing and training, that all such hospitals serving children must meet. In addition, it would license hospitals in one of six tiers (ranging from "primary" to "quaternary") based on their scope of services and expertise in caring for young patients. While only a handful of hospitals, including St. Petersburg's All Children's, would receive the top label, many would be motivated to improve their care to win a higher designation. That's all the more true because hospitals could use their designation for marketing purposes _ and parents could, for the first time, judge which hospitals best meet the particular needs of their sick child.

Parents and other consumers deserve that level of comfort and information now more than ever. With managed care squeezing profits and with competition fierce, hospitals have scrambled to carve out new niches and markets. A growing number hold themselves out as "children's hospitals" or possessing a special capacity to treat kids, without the specialized training or equipment to show for it. These standards would ensure that the quality of a hospital's pediatric care matches the grandeur of its advertising. If it works as intended, it should also promote coordination and cut down on duplication among hospitals in the same region.

Of course, it won't please everyone. Though the state sought early and wide input, it can still expect opposition from hospitals that fear a competitive disadvantage or a higher degree of state scrutiny. While it should remain open to reasonable suggestions for improving the standards, AHCA should push forward on the effort. It is one likely to pay off for Florida's children, if not for every hospital.

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