ST. PETERSBURG — Northside Hospital can't immediately move forward with plans to open a trauma center, a circuit court judge ruled late Friday.
The hospital, located at 6000 49th St. N, intended to open a specialized center for critically injured patients on May 1. But it met a legal challenge from Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, which operates its own trauma center downtown and said having a competitor just a few miles away would siphon off patients and erode quality.
In a 46-page order, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers noted that Florida law allows only two trauma centers in the "trauma service area" that encompasses Pinellas and Pasco counties. The region already has two: the one at Bayfront and another at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
Gievers blocked Northside from pressing ahead until ongoing administrative hearings on the state trauma rules are completed.
The ruling was welcome news to Bayfront CEO Kathryn Gillette.
"The current trauma system is working well, ensuring patients have quick access to the care if they need it," Gillette said in a statement. "The expansion of trauma services without thoughtful consideration is not in the best interest of the community.''
JC Sadler, a spokeswoman for the Nashville-based chain that runs Northside, said her hospital was "disappointed" in the order and "exploring all options to assure access to trauma care in our trauma service area."
A state Department of Health spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.
Trauma care has long been a hot-button issue in Florida.
Some hospitals have pushed for more trauma centers, saying increased competition would lead to better outcomes for patients. But existing operators say the proliferation of trauma centers would be bad for Florida. That's because the centers require highly skilled physicians and a high volume of patients to be sustainable.
There's big money at stake. A 2014 Tampa Bay Times investigation found that HCA, the hospital chain that runs Northside, was charging "trauma activation fees" as much as $33,000 per patient.
Health department attempts to ease the trauma center rules have met repeated legal challenges, some of which are continuing. Last week, the Florida House passed a bill that would allow more trauma centers in certain areas. The Senate has not taken action on the issue.
Bayfront, which is run by the for-profit hospital chain Community Health Systems, learned that Northside filed paperwork to open a Level 2 trauma center earlier this year. (A Level 2 trauma center covers fewer specialties than a Level 1 trauma center.)
Indeed, state health officials were planning to award Northside a provisional license to open in May, according to the judge's order.
The health department told the court it was obligated to grant the license even though there were no available slots. But Gievers said that position "ignores the plain language of the law and is erroneous."
The health department's stance, she said, "seemed unconnected to existing statutes that control Florida's trauma system . . . and more reflective of hoped for legislation" that would allow more trauma centers.
What's more, she said, Northside chief operating officer Peter Kennedy "did not seem particularly familiar with the fact that Florida trauma service providers are limited to two in the Pinellas/Pasco region."
"He seemed to be relying on statements — he did not remember who made the statements — that Northside, an HCA-affiliated provider, would be taken care of," she added.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.