FWB Medical Center CEO Mitch Mongell: “I have always been a firm believer that where you live should not determine if you live.”

FORT WALTON BEACH — After years in the making, the Fort Walton Beach Medical Center expects to receive soon the final designation needed to become a Level II trauma center.

The American College of Surgeons announced to hospital employees Wednesday that it has verified the medical center’s trauma services as a Level II facility. The final designation from the state Health Department is expected by the end of the month, hospital officials said.

Florida is divided into 10 trauma service areas. Trauma Service Area 1 is comprised of Okaloosa, Walton, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties. The only other certified trauma centers in the area are Sacred Heart Hospital and Baptist Hospital in Pensacola some 50 miles away.

FWB Medical Center officials said regulations require that trauma victims be taken to the closest trauma center, either by ground or air ambulance. With the ACS verification, the hospital’s trauma center now serves a population of more than 330,000 people.

“Our trauma center verification makes trauma victims safer by allowing them to be treated at our hospital instead of being transported to medical facilities further away,” FWB Medical Center CEO Mitch Mongell said Wednesday in a statement. “I have always been a firm believer that where you live should not determine if you live.”

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, played an integral role in helping the hospital expand its care to trauma patients. While he was serving as a state representative in 2013, the Legislature passed a health care bill that included rules introduced by Gaetz that cleared the way for trauma centers to be built in less populated regions across Florida.

The new legislation eliminated the state Department of Health’s ability to reject out of hand a hospital’s application for a trauma center if the application has been certified by the ACS.

“A trauma center in Okaloosa County will be a life-saving community asset,” Gaetz said Wednesday. “Too many Okaloosa residents have died in ambulances on the way to Pensacola. With our tourist activity and our growing population, we’ve needed a trauma center for a while. I’m incredibly proud of the Fort Walton Beach Medical Center for their high achievement.”

Gaetz said he expects the final designation from the state Department of Health to be a formality.

“The way I wrote this law placed the most rigorous evaluation in the hands of the American College of Surgeons,” he said. “The Department of Health function at this point is largely administerial.”

The FWB Medical Center trauma center is now one of only seven ACS-verified Level II trauma centers in Florida. Five of them are overseen by the Hospital Corporation of America, FWB Medical Center's parent company.

As an ACS-verified trauma center, the hospital is equipped and staffed to provide comprehensive emergency care to patients suffering traumatic injuries caused by vehicle crashes, gunshots, assaults, falls or other incidents, hospital officials said.

Hospital spokeswoman Denise Kendust said while the facility is not yet an official state trauma center, it has been seeing trauma patients.

“We’ve been taking trauma cases ever since (Okaloosa County) EMS adopted the protocol for sending patients to us, because we had all of the qualifications in place,” she said. “Verification is a very long process. We are currently seeing trauma patients, but we can’t put our sign up until the state designation is given to us.”

Once final approval is granted, the hospital plans to host a community event and unveil the signage.

The state Department of Health already permits EMS to take trauma patients to FWB Medical Center because it has the surgeons and equipment needed to serve them, Okaloosa County EMS Director Tracey Vause said. He said some patients are taken to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola rather than FWB Medical Center simply because they are closer to the Pensacola facility.

From December through February, EMS took 42 trauma patients to FWB Medical Center and six to Sacred Heart, Vause said.