BRADENTON -- Blake Medical Center's survival as Manatee County's newest and only trauma center got some legal backing when an administrative court judge in Tallahassee confirmed the validity of a plan to establish trauma centers around the state.
On Friday, Judge R. Bruce McKibben ruled state criteria for determining where and how many trauma centers can be established in Florida are valid.
In 2004, the Legislature directed the Florida Department of Health to establish a method for deciding where new trauma centers are needed to treat the most critical patient injuries.
In a statement Monday, Blake's parent company, HCA, lauded the judge's ruling.
"We are pleased with Judge McKibben's Final Order upholding the Department of Health's trauma allocation rule," said J.C. Sadler, HCA's Florida division communications vice president. "While we are still studying the order, we are hopeful that this decision finally puts an end to the litigation."
The state allocation rule was challenged by several hospitals with established trauma centers, including Tampa General Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. With
the challenge, those hospitals questioned the state's method of approving new trauma centers, including Blake and HCA-owned Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Pasco County and Ocala Regional Medical Center.
Currently, 27 trauma centers operate in Florida. The state rule established that Florida can host up to 42 trauma centers in its 19 trauma service areas.
Blake's Level II trauma center opened in late 2011 and has treated 2,136 patients since. Trauma centers nearest to the county's trauma service area -- which encompasses Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties -- include Bayfront, St. Joseph's and Tampa General.
The legal fight almost came to an end during the recently completed legislative session. A House of Representatives bill that would have "grandfathered" the three HCA centers into the state's trauma center system failed to garner approval in the Senate in May. The bill was a result of a compromise between HCA and the established trauma centers. Had it passed, it would have also instituted a one-year moratorium on new trauma centers in Florida, and capped trauma center access fees at $15,000.
McKibben's decision last week validates the state's strategy of evaluating the need for new trauma centers based on an area's population and travel time to the nearest trauma center.
The health department also considers community support and the number of severely injured patients in a trauma service area in determining whether a hospital will be allowed to open a trauma center.
In court documents, challengers to the rule assert opening more trauma centers will increase competition for patients, which they allege will harm their existing centers.
The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment concerning Friday's court decision as of late Monday.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.