MANATEE -- A Florida appeals court has sided again with nonprofit hospitals challenging the designation of trauma centers, including Bradenton's Blake Medical Center, that were approved by state regulators.
The ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal will clear the way for challenges to the continued operation of trauma centers that opened in 2011 at Blake and Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, in Pasco County. Another disputed trauma center at Orange Park Medical Center, in Clay County, has already been shut down for another reason.
Tampa General Hospital, St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg and UF Health Jacksonville have fought the new trauma centers for more than two years.
The hospitals, which operate trauma centers, have argued they would be hurt by the new trauma facilities, which would siphon off patients and compete for specialists.
Brian Kimbrell, M.D., Blake's trauma and critical care medical director, said Friday, "We are disappointed with the court's decision, and are working to determine whether additional action may be warranted. Our trauma program meets a critical need in our region and complements the existing state trauma network."
The court's decision will not diminish the hospital's
commitment to "continuing to provide the highest quality trauma care possible to the many patients we serve," he added.
The dispute has led to a complex maze of legal actions.
However, Thursday's ruling was a second important victory for the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville-area hospitals, as they seek to shut down the new facilities, which are at hospitals affiliated with the for-profit HCA health care chain.
The ruling stemmed from petitions that the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville-area hospitals filed to challenge the Department of Health's approvals of the new trauma facilities.
The department rejected the petitions, contending that the four hospitals didn't have legal standing to challenge the approvals.
But a three-judge panel of the appeals court disagreed, saying the state Division of Administrative Hearings should take up the challenges.
"We determine that DOH erred in dismissing the challenges for lack of standing because the substantial interests of the existing trauma care centers are within the zone of interest protected by the trauma care statutes, which require DOH to consider the impact that new trauma centers will have on existing trauma centers," the court said.
The Florida Department of Health, which operates under the jurisdiction of Gov. Rick Scott, a former Columbia/HCA chief executive, tried to prevent nonprofit hospitals from challenging licenses issued for the trauma centers.
The department argued that hospitals in urban centers challenging the centers, located in outlying communities, lacked standing to bring a challenge.
But the court's ruling said the department was wrong because the nonprofit hospitals have economic interests that are affected by which hospitals are designated as trauma centers.
It was yet another ruling in what has been a long-running fight.
The same appeals court last November decided that the rule authorizing designation of the trauma centers was outdated and invalid to begin with.
The Associated Press and the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7037. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.