Florida’s Legislature jumped into the middle of a contentious legal battle Tuesday over the expansion of hospital trauma care. The House Health and Human Services Committee approved a last-minute amendment that would allow hospitals an easier route to opening trauma centers, emergency departments equipped to treat a higher level of acute care. A Senate committee will hear a similar bill Thursday. Opponents of the bill say it essentially deregulates the application process for new trauma centers and strips oversight away from the Florida Department of Health, which has spent months revamping decades-old trauma center rules. “Our system is only broken because the department didn’t update its rules. And that is being done now,” said Jan Gorrie, a Tampa-based lobbyist for the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida. “Leave this to the medical experts. Leave it to them to decide if this policy makes sense.”
There currently are 24 trauma centers in Florida. First responders transport patients to one of them, depending on proximity and the severity of an injury. The process of adding new centers has been “perverted” to the benefit of existing urban hospitals, said sponsor Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. He said rural communities with no nearby trauma centers have been waiting for years to get past this cumbersome and lawsuit-laden process and get trauma care closer to home. “It ensures the access to trauma centers where access is limited,” Gaetz said of the proposal, which would most affect rural counties with 300 or fewer residents per square mile. A lot of the delay stems from lawsuits in Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals involving new trauma centers in Hudson and Bradenton and filed by hospitals including Tampa General Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Too many trauma centers waters down the quality of the system and safety of the patients, Melissa Cole, trauma program manager at Tampa General, told legislators Tuesday. But Erik Barquist, trauma medical director at Osceola Regional Medical Center, countered that the delays are affecting the number of lives that can be saved. Osceola is one of several HCA Healthcare hospitals caught up in the litigious application process. “The sad truth is we’ve slowed to a crawl,” he said. Several legislators Tuesday questioned the introduction of such a massive overhaul three weeks before session ends. However, a large majority still felt the issue was worthy of a large debate on the house floor.