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Health department rejects ruling on Orange Park Medical Center

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Amid a legislative debate about the approval of trauma centers, the Florida Department of Health on Thursday rejected a judge's ruling that the department improperly allowed a trauma facility to open at Orange Park Medical Center in Clay County.

A 68-page final order, signed by state Surgeon General Celeste Philip, backed the department's decision last year to allow the opening of what is known as a "provisional" trauma center at the Orange Park hospital.

UF Health Jacksonville hospital, which has long run a trauma center in neighboring Duval County, launched a legal fight after the department allowed the Orange Park trauma center to open.

UF Health Jacksonville argued that state rules only allowed one trauma center in a five-county region of Northeast Florida.

Administrative Law Judge W. David Watkins agreed with UF Health Jacksonville and issued a recommended order in January that said the department should not have allowed the Orange Park facility to open.

But under administrative law, the issue went back to the department for a final order.

In part, the final order said the department is not required to determine a need for trauma centers before giving provisional approval.

After operating as provisional facilities, trauma centers can later seek a more-permanent status.

"As set forth in the summary of the approval process for trauma centers, the plain language of the trauma statutes requires the department to conduct a provisional review of trauma center applications without consideration of allocated need," the final order said. "Thus, the department was following the plain language of the statute."

The final order was issued a day before the state House could approve a bill (HB 1077) that would change criteria for approving new trauma centers.

The bill, in part, would ensure that the Orange Park trauma center could remain open.

That is because it would establish a need for at least two trauma facilities in Northeast Florida.

While it appears the bill will pass the House, it remains unclear whether the Senate will take up the issue.

UF Health Jacksonville also could appeal Thursday's final order to the 1st District Court of Appeal.