After 85 years in business, Harford Memorial Hospital has no intention of closing up as a general, or acute-care, hospital serving Harford and Cecil counties.
That's the message emphasized by Allan Acton, senior vice president of Upper Chesapeake Health System, and Philip Barker, the former Harford County councilman who's taken on the challenging task of smoothing community relations for the Havre de Grace hospital.
With $2.5 million in recent renovations throughout, including a newly rebuilt intensive care and progressive care unit with advanced telemetry monitoring, and a 25-bed psychiatric ward that opened just a month ago, Harford Memorial plans to continue its mission for the foreseeable future, Mr. Acton insisted. "We want to get every patient that we can . . . to use as much of our hospital as we can," he said.
Skepticism about Harford Memorial's future blossomed as the non-profit operator proposed, in ever-changing terms, building a new hospital somewhere between Abingdon and Bel Air. Citizens joined to protest the plan, under the banner Save Our Hospital; about 6,000 people signed petitions opposing the changes.
It was this community uncertainty about the hospital's future -- officials had already said they would transfer maternity and pediatric services from Harford Memorial to the new hospital -- that I referred to in a recent column about Havre de Grace. But I wrote that Upper Chesapeake wanted to close the hospital, a point which Harford Memorial vehemently denies.
Touring the hospital facilities recently, I was shown the elaborate new monitoring systems of the ICU and progressive care unit, the central utility columns that facilitate access to patient needs, even the new four-line IV pumps that enhance patient treatment in the third-floor tower. The psychiatric unit was well ordered and designed, the redone emergency center was prepared for the critical cases that could come through the door at any time.
What I did not see were many patients, something that can always happen in a community hospital at a given time -- but a condition that is increasingly troubling to the financial forces controlling hospitals.
Hospitals are pressed to find the right mix of services that will efficiently use their capacity. And that is a major reason why Upper Chesapeake's plans for a new hospital and for Harford Memorial remain in flux. Those shifting and often ambiguous plans, in turn, have fed the anxieties of the community about the hospital's future.
Mr. Acton is preparing to file another certificate of need this month with state regulators, again seeking approval for the new hospital. After two years and at least three selected sites, Upper Chesapeake has decided on a 25-acre parcel on MacPhail Road on the south side of Bel Air.
The $45 million new facility would have 125 beds and, depending on the regulatory process, will likely open in the year 2000.
Harford Memorial also plans to operate about 125 beds, Mr. Acton said. At one time, the plan was for only 75 beds, raised to 100 beds and now to 125, he noted.
The hospital maintains that it is not cutting jobs, that staffing is flexible and adjusted to the patient count. Temporary or on-call personnel are available to meet hospital needs.
However, Upper Chesapeake's application to the Health Resources Planning Commission a year ago stated that Harford Memorial's employment would be cut from 542 full-time equivalent workers to 331. That was based on operating 100 beds at Harford Memorial. With 125 beds now set for Harford Memorial, the employment shrinkage will be less but will still occur.
Harford Memorial also hopes to keep pediatric care, a change from earlier plans, if legal requirements can be met, the vice president said. But maternity services will shift to the new hospital, closer to the growth centers of Harford County.
While it is easy to sympathize with the hospital about rapidly changing conditions in the health care industry, it's also true that the hospital and Upper Chesapeake have contributed to public concern.
The election of a new chairman of Upper Chesapeake last week, and speculation about President Constance Row's future, add to the public uncertainty.
Turmoil at Harford Memorial and Fallston General (also owned by Upper Chesapeake) has been going on for years. It's a history of questionable consolidation and management problems and a failure to aggressively meet the expanding competition from Baltimore Beltway hospitals.
Two years ago, Upper Chesapeake was talking about a new hospital in Creswell. A year ago, it applied for state permission to build a new hospital at an unnamed location. Then the Abingdon site was disclosed, only to be succeeded by the Bel Air location.
Upper Chesapeake also tried to avoid the formal hearings normally required by the state commission.
Hospital officials waffled on the role Harford Memorial would play in the new arrangement. They glossed over the employment impact.
Finally, the state Health Resources Planning Commission told Upper Chesapeake to reapply and expect a formal hearing.
Given the huge financial stakes in hospitals, a mere $2.5 million investment in Harford Memorial does not guarantee its long-term survival in present form. But the commitment to renovation and upgrading of facilities, and of bolstering nursing services, underlines its intention to remain serving the community.
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.