The Florida Department of Health said Wednesday it will appeal a judge's decision in a hospital-industry fight about adding trauma centers.
Administrative Law Judge W. David Watkins last week found that the department was using an invalid rule in determining whether proposed trauma centers should be approved. The decision was a victory for hospitals in the Jacksonville and Tampa areas that want to block new trauma centers in Clay, Manatee and Pasco counties.
Department spokeswoman Jessica Hammonds said in an e-mail the agency will appeal Watkins' decision to the 1st District Court of Appeal. Also Hammonds said state law allows the disputed rule to remain in effect until appeals are finished.
That would open the door to the department using the rule to consider trauma-center applications for Orange Park Medical Center in Clay County, Blake Medical Center in Manatee County and Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Pasco County.
Even before the department said Wednesday it would appeal the judge's decision, the three hospitals said they would continue with the application process. While the hospitals started the process months ago, they face a key Oct. 1 application deadline.
All of the hospitals are part of the HCA chain.
"Our neighbors, families and friends deserve faster access to life-saving care when it matters most, so we are moving forward with our application to the state,'' Blake Medical Center President and CEO Daniel Friedrich said in a statement that was largely echoed by officials at the other hospitals.
Shands Jacksonville, Tampa General Hospital, St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg filed the case against the Department of Health earlier this year.
Blake Medical Center and Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point formally intervened in the case on the department's side.
The Jacksonville and Tampa Bay hospitals operate trauma centers and want to prevent the HCA hospitals from opening trauma facilities in neighboring counties. The proposed facilities would divert patients and revenues away from the already-existing centers.
The legal case centers on a 1992 rule that the department uses in determining whether a need exists for additional trauma centers. The rule carves the state into 19 trauma regions and includes a maximum number of trauma centers in each area.
Watkins sided with an argument by the Jacksonville and Tampa Bay hospitals that the rule is outdated, at least in part because of later legislative decisions.
In a 75-page decision issued Friday, Watkins wrote that the Department of Health "did not present any rational explanation of how the department determines current need for additional trauma programs" based on data that helped lead to the rule.
But in the e-mail Wednesday, Hammonds said the department "disagrees with the legal rationale which forms the basis of the opinion.''