MANATEE -- Blake Medical Center was approved as a verified trauma center Friday by the Florida Department of Health, a landmark event in an often grueling three-year process to date for the hospital.
While Blake has treated 1,200 critically injured patients since getting provisional trauma status in November 2011, its status was uncertain after Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Tampa General Hospital and two other hospitals filed a lawsuit regarding the center against the Department of Health.
The lawsuit claimed that a trauma center at Blake would siphon off millions of dollars from their trauma customer bases, the Herald has reported.
But while that suit still twists and turns through the legal system, Blake is looking forward.
The Department of Health feels confident that because Blake's application was submitted before the issue of new trauma centers was raised, Blake should not be threatened, State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Friday.
"Can someone bring a challenge?" asked Galvano. "Theoretically, yes. But I don't believe there is a basis to bring that challenge."
Blake's trauma team welcomed the news, even as the Department of Health held a public workshop in Tampa Friday allowing discussion on how trauma status should be awarded in the future.
Representatives from older area trauma centers, like Bayfront Medical Center and Tampa General, argued that their emergency services were effective and competitive trauma centers were not needed.
But Dr. Brian Kimbrell, Blake's trauma medical director, spoke on behalf of Blake, stating that Manatee County patients were not all being served effectively by the nearest trauma center being in the Tampa Bay area.
Kimbrell told the audience at the meeting that Manatee County ranked 12th out of 67 Florida counties in morbidity.
"What we have discovered is that only 20 percent of people from our service area who need it are going to trauma center for care," Kimbrell said.
Kimbrell said he expected that number to radically change in 2013.
"Hugs and pats on the back, maybe even the trauma team dancing a little jig," said hospital spokeswoman Stephanie Petta of the moment at 3:43 p.m. when an email came from the Department of Health.
Blake's actual designation is "Level II Trauma Center."
"A trauma center is a pooling of resources to be available immediately," said Dr. Brian Kimbrell, Blake's trauma medical director. "For example, we have a surgeon in house who sleeps at the hospital. We have surgeons available 24/7.
"Level twos can deal with 97 percent of all the traumas," added Kimbrell. "We have four neurosurgeons, and that is rare and hard to come by. That is a great resource. We have 12 orthopedic surgeons and one trauma orthopedic specialist who has training in difficult cases, like complex pelvic fractures."
That's handy because of the 1,200 patients Blake has treated in its first year, the top three causes were vehicle crashes, motorcycle crashes and falls, Petta said.
At a regular hospital, a surgeon is usually on call and needs to drive in from his home, often in the middle of the night, Kimbrell said.
"Our operating room staff sleeps over, too," Petta said.
Level I trauma centers tend to be in large cities, are affiliated with universities and colleges and possess burn centers and highly-specialized resources, like the ability to reattach a limb, Kimbrell said.
Blake's parent company, Hospital Corporation of America, invested more than $16 million for Blake to become a trauma center. It spent $2.5 million for construction of two trauma bays in the emergency room and a control room. It built a ramp for the helicopter landing pad and a second helicopter landing area. There was $5 million spent in salaries for roughly 30 extra staff, Petta said.
"There was a real community need," Petta added. "Trauma was very underserved."
Blake was already focusing on emergency care when its officials decided to make the jump to trauma.
"We had a great emergency room, a chest pain center, primary stroke center and we had worked with local EMS providers to improve the chances of patients who have had very serious heart attacks," Petta said. "We felt we were a good fit. We excelled in the emergency world."
Bayfront Medical Center and the other hospitals that sued the Department of Health won the suit, but the Department of Health appealed and the case has reached the District Court of Appeals, Galvano said.
"There is a decision pending there," Galvano said.
The suit claimed a Department of Health rule was outdated that said hospitals in specific "trauma service areas," one being No. 13 -- Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties -- could become trauma centers if they desired, Kimbrell said.
"The Department of Health believes it was a valid rule and Blake's approval was granted under that rule but what the department is doing with its hearing is looking forward," Galvano said. "But it will not impact where the Department has been.
"Blake Medical stepped up and they are serving the region," Galvano added. "When you see they had more than 1,000 cases in the first year, you realize that is a substantial number of life-and-death situations. I think having Blake in Manatee County fulfills our state policy of having timely, accessible and quality health care and those who challenge it are more interested in market share than delivering health care."