Assembly considers limits on takeovers of hospitals Numerous suitors have approached county's only hospital

February 04, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

A new bill before the state legislature would require some sales of nonprofit hospitals to be approved by three state regulatory agencies -- much to the agreement of some Howard County state legislators worried that the county's only hospital may be sold.

Under the bill, the state attorney general's office, state insurance regulators and the state health department would review -- and could potentially veto -- any sale of a nonprofit hospital to a for-profit entity, said Democratic Del. Dan K. Morhaim, who submitted the bill last week.

The aim, the Baltimore County delegate said, is to protect the quality of patient care amid the cost-cutting that has afflicted health care.

The bill is welcomed by Howard politicians concerned that Howard County General Hospital has been approached more than a dozen times in the last two years about a possible sale.

"This bill is a very good idea," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who has taken the lead among local delegates in keeping tabs on a potential sale of the 233-bed Columbia hospital.

"We've seen this type of regulation with insurance companies and banks as the bigger conglomerate groups buy up the smaller ones," she said. "This is a statewide issue that really applies in Howard County."

Del. Frank S. Turner added, "Howard County General could very well turn over in the next six months. At the last hospital meeting, I told the [hospital] board that I didn't want to wake up one morning and read in the newspaper that the hospital had been sold and we had been blindsided. People ought to know."

Also concerned is Del. Shane Pendergrass. "We need to make sure we're protecting this asset in the county," she said.

Bobo, Turner and Pendergrass are all Columbia Democrats.

Within the past two years, 16 health care entities have approached Howard County General to buy, merge or otherwise align with it, said Victor A. Broccolino, the hospital's president. But only one offer has come in writing and the hospital is not negotiating a change of ownership, he said.

Twelve of the 16 potential buyers are nonprofits and all are based in the Baltimore-Washington area, Broccolino said.

"I have not seen the regulation and cannot comment specifically on it," Broccolino said. "We are first and foremost a community hospital, and that will not change. I am not against an external review -- provided that the legislation is appropriately drafted and protects the interests of the community. The devil is in the details."

The 19-page bill was printed late yesterday. Several legislators and officials, including Howard state Sen. Martin G. Madden and County Executive Charles I. Ecker, both Republicans, declined to comment, saying that they had not yet read the bill.

Morhaim, an emergency-room physician who has sponsored health care-related legislation in the past, said he was "vaguely aware" that rumors about the possible sale of Howard County General have been circulating for months.

Only one for-profit entity has purchased a nonprofit health facility in Maryland, Morhaim said. In that case, a dental company bought a nonprofit dental-care facility. The state insurance agency ordered the facility to pay a third party -- the University of Maryland Dental School -- more than $600,000 as a form of public compensation for that sale, he said.

The issue has become a topic of national discussion in health care circles, most recently in Washington, where the sale of the nonprofit George Washington University Medical Center to the for-profit Tenet Healthcare Corp. is under negotiation, Morhaim said.

It is only a matter of time, he said, before the issue comes up in Maryland, where all but one of 50 hospitals are nonprofit.

"Nonprofits are supported by taxpayers through taxes and bonds," Morhaim said. "They need to be assured protection if a sale happens. We have to make sure the money is accounted for.

"It ought not to happen that a for-profit comes in and strips away aspects of health care that a community needs simply because it's not profitable."

The bill requires public hearings to provide for community input on potential sales.

State regulations already require that those involved in every hospital sale must prove to the state Health Resources Planning Commission that patient care would not change, said James Stanton, executive director of the commission.

Also, hospitals must report to the commission before closing sections of a facility -- for example, pediatrics -- for any reason, he said.

"We would still be able to do that," Stanton said. "This bill seems to offer another level of protection to consumers."

Added Bobo: "Patients are the consumers of the health care industry. They need to be protected. Who knows what's coming up? But we'll be prepared."

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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