After months of setbacks, the Upper Chesapeake Health System has asked the state Health Resources Planning Commission for guidance in its efforts to build a new Harford County hospital and consolidate other health services.
Upper Chesapeake filed a petition for a declaratory ruling on its project with the state commission Jan. 20. The commission has 45 days to answer several questions posed by Upper Chesapeake about its health-service plans in Harford County.
"Rather than waste time and attorneys' fees, we decided to seek clarification," said Allan H. Acton, Upper Chesapeake's vice president of planning, marketing and system development.
Upper Chesapeake is seeking the state's advice on whether to file a two-part application for its plan. Such an application would request an exemption from a certificate of need for a reduction of hospital beds and the relocation of some services, and a full certificate of need for the relocation and replacement of Fallston General Hospital.
The company also asked the commission whether those two processes could occur simultaneously.
The medical-management group -- the parent company of the county's two hospitals, Harford Memorial in Havre de Grace and Fallston General -- has proposed building a new hospital in Abingdon, closing Fallston Hospital, reducing the number of beds at Harford Memorial and moving obstetric and pediatric units from Harford Memorial to the new facility.
The proposal would nearly halve the number of licensed hospital beds in the county, from 494 to 250.
"We have been groping for the procedural process to improve acute-care service in Harford County," Mr. Acton said.
In its petition, the hospital group set out alternative plans if a certificate of need for a new facility were not granted. Upper Chesapeake then would seek approval to move obstetric and pediatric services to Fallston General, the petition said.
But if a certificate of need were granted, Upper Chesapeake would explore the feasibility of converting all, or part, of Fallston General into a long-term care facility. The hospital was originally designed as a nursing home, according to the petition.
"[The petition] is relatively unusual. I haven't seen one in quite a while," said Susan Panek, a Health Resources Planning Commission staff member. "It is more appropriate in this situation for a group to want to have some issues settled before a review begins."
Upper Chesapeake, which also is affiliated with Johns Hopkins Health System, started proceedings for its consolidation project in July by applying to the state's health-care regulators for an exemption from a certificate of need.
"We asked key planning [commission] staff how to proceed and were told that was the way to go," Mr. Acton said.
"I think there was no intent to mislead," Ms. Panek said. "It is a legal gray area . . . The conservative approach is what the staff recommended."
In November, a state hearing officer ruled against the exemption and recommended a full certificate of need hearing for Upper Chesapeake's proposal.
"In our first encounter with the hearing officer . . . we were told we were not eligible to apply [for an exemption] because we proposed the relocation of facilities, not the relocation of services," Mr. Acton said. "It would have been nice to know that ahead of time."
Ms. Panek said that "the hearing officer has the prerogative to see things differently than the staff."
Upper Chesapeake appealed the decision to the full planning commission. The state regulators upheld the hearing officer's decision in December.
"What we want to do is build a modern facility in the development corridor and take OB [obstetrics] and PEDS [pediatrics] there," Mr. Acton said.
The new $60 million, 150-bed facility would be located on 26 acres across Route 924 from the Constant Friendship Shopping Center in Abingdon. Upper Chesapeake has a renewable option to buy the property, Mr. Acton said.
The new hospital would provide acute inpatient care, a medical office complex for doctors, an outpatient and ancillary service area and an emergency room, in addition to the obstetric and pediatric services that would be relocated from the 83-year-old Harford Memorial Hospital.
Upper Chesapeake also owns 25 acres at Route 24 and West MacPhail Road, which it purchased in December as a potential site for a medical office building or hospital.
If Upper Chesapeake decides to file a certificate of need for the new facility, it would have to go through a full evidentiary hearing to justify the hospital reorganization and document the needs of current and projected area populations.