Closing Fallston General, building in Bel Air OK'd State planning panel approves hospital for Harford Co. seat

September 11, 1996|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

After years of debate, the state's health planning commission yesterday cleared the way to close Fallston General Hospital and build a $60 million hospital in Bel Air.

The plan will "replace an aging facility" and "put services in a county that's growing very rapidly in a location where they can be better utilized," said Lyle E. Sheldon, chief executive of Upper Chesapeake Health System, which will build the hospital. Upper Chesapeake was created in 1987 by the merger of Harford County's two hospitals, Fallston General and Harford Memorial.

Also at yesterday's meeting, the Health Resources Planning Commission approved new regulations, opposed by some advocacy groups, permitting psychiatric hospitals to convert 48 surplus beds into residential treatment centers for adolescents and children.

The 120-bed hospital in Bel Air is expected to take about three years to plan and build. Its construction and a reorganization by Upper Chesapeake would reduce the number of hospital beds in Harford County from 484 -- now operating at 40 percent of capacity -- to 247.

Along with the closing of Fallston General, licensed for 184 beds, Harford Memorial in Havre de Grace will shrink from 300 beds to 120. Its pediatric and obstetric units will be moved to the new facility in Bel Air, in the part of the county where 70 percent of the women of child-bearing age live, according to Upper Chesapeake. Also, the health system is seeking approval for an additional 17 "sub-acute" beds at Harford Memorial.

Upper Chesapeake began to seek approval for the plan in 1993, but its initial efforts were blocked. Until the last few weeks, it looked as though the plan would still face opposition from the city of Havre de Grace and from competing hospitals.

The opposition was dropped, however, clearing the way for the commission to act. Sheldon said officials in Havre de Grace had feared that the changes would mean that Harford Memorial would close, but hospital officials made commitments to invest in and to market the hospital.

The Helix hospitals and Greater Baltimore Medical Center dropped their opposition after Upper Chesapeake assured them it would not add extra beds by converting private to semiprivate rooms or by building "shell space" which could be converted later to patient rooms, Sheldon said.

Gerry Blair, assistant vice president for marketing for the Helix system, said Helix did not object to the idea of a hospital in Bel Air, but wanted to make sure Upper Chesapeake filed detailed plans committing the new facility to a specific scope and size. Now, he said, Helix agrees with the plans.

There was not similar agreement on the residential treatment center beds, which provide less intensive care than admission to an acute psychiatric hospital. State officials are concerned because of children and adolescents being in state-run units or in private hospitals under court-ordered state custody. The state is under a federal court consent decree to move children out of psychiatric hospitals when doctors determine they can be cared for in other settings.

Dr. Albert A. Zachik, assistant director of the state Mental Hygiene Administration, told the commission that the beds were needed because Maryland has 350 children and adolescents receiving treatment out of state and so that patients "can be moved out of hospital units into a more appropriate level of treatment."

Walter J. Hall, a member of the health planning commission who chaired a committee studying the proposal, said allowing psychiatric hospitals to provide residential treatment beds was a good solution since the hospitals already have space.

But Jann Jackson, director of Advocates for Children and Youth, called approval of the beds "a move backwards" because the state needs to "divert resources from deep-end services" to community treatment.

Pub Date: 9/11/96

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