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Judge Backs Proposed Pinellas Trauma Center

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
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The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

An administrative law judge Wednesday said the Florida Department of Health improperly rejected a proposal to open a trauma center at a St. Petersburg hospital.

Judge Robert S. Cohen issued a 46-page ruling that said Northside Hospital had met criteria to win approval for a trauma center. The Department of Health, which decides whether to approve trauma centers, denied Northside's application on May 1, saying it found three deficiencies.

Under administrative law, Cohen's ruling is a recommended order that will go back to the Department of Health for a final decision. The case comes amid years of legal battles in the hospital industry about opening trauma centers across the state. Bayfront Health-St. Petersburg and Tampa's St. Joseph Hospital, which have long operated trauma centers, have opposed Northside's proposal to open a trauma facility.

In his ruling, Cohen said the Department of Health's rejection of the Northside application appeared to be tied to a case filed in Leon County circuit court. In that case, a circuit judge issued a temporary injunction April 28 against Northside operating a trauma center because of a state law that caps the number of trauma centers in 19 different regions of Florida.

Opponents argued that allowing the Northside trauma facility would exceed a cap for Pinellas and Pasco counties. But Cohen wrote Wednesday that the injunction should not have prevented the Department of Health from approving Northside's application.

“Given the looming injunction order, the department's internal correspondence, and the fact that the three alleged deficiencies are minor, at the very most, the department's decision to deny the application was apparently motivated by an administrative decision that it should not approve an application while the injunction was in place — not by any genuine concerns regarding the merits of Northside's program,” Cohen wrote.