A new hospital for Harford

August 02, 1993

The Upper Chesapeake Health System is looking for a site to build a new hospital in the Bel Air area, as a major step toward improving its facilities and services in Harford County.

The private, non-profit organization, which operates Harford Memorial and Fallston General hospitals, has been striving mightily to remake itself during the past year. A new chief executive was named, the supervisory boards were reorganized, a Chicago consultant developed a long-range strategic plan and $1 million was pledged to upgrade the facilities and patient care systems.

Changes were certainly needed. The two hospitals typically use only half their 500 authorized beds, local physicians were unhappy with the facilities. Half the Harford residents using a hospital went to institutions outside the county; for maternity patients, it was more than 80 percent.

Driven to end financial losses at Fallston, a for-profit hospital acquired over six years ago, the system reportedly tried to steer ambulances away from that emergency room to the ER at Harford Memorial in Havre de Grace, where its costs (but not its charges) were lower. That controversy reflected a deteriorating public image.

Building a new hospital is not in itself going to turn around that mottled image. But it can help to provide better services and facilities that give other improvements in management and human relations a better chance to work. The question, one that will be posed by the state Health Resources Planning Commission in deciding to grant permission to build, is whether needed improvements cannot be made in existing facilities, without spending $60 million on a new structure.

One major problem is that the Fallston hospital is leased, and the landlord has blocked several proposed physical improvements to the property. The old facilities remain a drawback in attracting patients and doctors. The site is too small for serious expansion and traffic flow into the complex is frequently impeded because of backups on the entrance roads.

Upper Chesapeake signed an option in June to buy 23 acres on Route 24, land formerly proposed for a Super Kmart. The hospital would have to clear the same Bel Air zoning exception hurdles, and residential opposition, that defeated the department store. But first, the state agency must decide whether a new hospital is needed for the greater community, given the shorter stays in hospitals and greater use of outpatient facilities.

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