Revamping Harford's Hospitals

September 28, 1994

Harford County needs a modern new hospital that will better serve the entire county than the two existing institutions, whose condition and reputation have prompted a majority of Harford residents to choose hospitals in other counties.

Upper Chesapeake Health System proposes to build a $60 million, 150-bed hospital by 1998 in the heart of the population-development corridor in Abingdon to recapture the confidence and patronage of Harford County residents.

The plan would cut in half the number of state-licensed hospital beds in the county, reflecting shorter inpatient stays and more outpatient procedures. Patient charges would rise, but remain in the lower-half of all Maryland hospitals.

Fallston General would close. Harford Memorial in Havre de Grace would lose its maternity and pediatric services and 270 jobs would be cut.

Serious questions remain. Will Harford Memorial be closed as a general hospital in the near future, as area residents fear? What emergency services will be available to the northern two-thirds of Harford County? Will the medical office building next to the new hospital lure doctors away from other communities? Could existing facilities be revamped at less cost? Will other metro hospitals be affected?

The decision is not up to Upper Chesapeake alone. Hospital rates and facilities are regulated in Maryland as a public service. The Maryland Health Resources Planning Commission must approve the application to build the new facility and reduce operations at the other two hospitals.

Upper Chesapeake wants an exemption from the commission's full-blown hearing process, arguing that it is simply merging and consolidating its existing services, not expanding them.

The difference in time between an exemption process and a full evidentiary hearing, with sworn testimony and cross-examination of witnesses, may be six or eight months. That's not an unreasonable delay for a four-year project, especially one with so many pending public-interest questions.

However, if the commission can assure the public that the full range of concerns and criticisms will be fairly addressed without a full-scale hearing, that might also be acceptable.

The point is not to dwell on process, but to avoid a hasty decision, based on incomplete information, that will have long-term economic and health care impact on Harford County. Upper Chesapeake deserves an expedited review, but the commission must consider full comment and analysis.

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