Deal brings Hopkins back to Howard Residents, hospital officials see merger as a reunion of sorts

'Coming back together'

$142 million merger will bring upgrades and expanded services

March 22, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

For Dr. Henry M. Seidel, the announcement that Johns Hopkins Medicine is taking over Howard County General Hospital came as a poignant reunion of the past and the present.

Twenty-five years ago, he came from Baltimore to Columbia -- then a city of barely 6,000 -- to work with a small group of Hopkins doctors at the community hospital off Cedar Lane. Eventually Hopkins withdrew and the entity became Howard County General.

This week, Seidel -- teary-eyed but smiling -- stood in the hospital's ambulatory wing watching the presidents of the two entities shake hands on the $142 million deal.

"When we started out, we were serving a much smaller, much less developed area," said Seidel, 75, who served as the hospital's first medical director. "We were all eager and loving it. We went out there with the wonderful idea to provide all the needed services for the residents. Now we are coming back together, just like then."

Hopkins won a fight for the hospital that turned intense in the past few weeks, leaving at least one bitter loser -- St. Agnes HealthCare -- and complaints of questionable practices involving a last-minute newspaper advertisement supporting St. Agnes' bid.

But for many Howard County residents who feared losing their community hospital, the reaction to the deal was enthusiastic.

"I'm pleased that if the hospital realized it had to merge with anyone, it went with a well-known name like Hopkins," said Helen Ruther, a long time Columbia activist. "We started out with Hopkins and now we're going back to them. It's reassuring. The Hopkins name inspires confidence."

Improvements, expansion

Hospital officials say the Hopkins partnership will allow the 233-bed Columbia hospital to improve facilities and expand services as it begins developing a series of clinics throughout the county.

"With our size, we were just too small to realize our dream," said Victor A. Broccolino, Howard County General's president and chief executive officer. "With this reunion with Hopkins, we know going to have opportunities."

The deal also brings $40 million in Hopkins money to a new foundation whose mission is to address Howard County residents' unmet health needs.

Opportunity for Hopkins

For Hopkins, the deal is a strategic opportunity. Its first joint venture with a private, nonprofit hospital brings it into a lucrative medical market with generally affluent, healthy, insured customers.

"Our concern was that Hopkins would be totally isolated [in East Baltimore] and become [only] a high-cost hospital," said Dr. Edward D. Miller, Hopkins' chief executive officer. "Our strategy is to partner with Howard County General so that does not happen."

In addition to its reputation, Hopkins also brings deep pockets to Howard County. As part of the deal, Hopkins will assume $57 million in Howard County General debt and put the $40 million into the new foundation, which will fund a range of health services, including dental, teen-age pregnancy and disease prevention programs.

"With this merger, the potential is there for a promising future for the hospital and the community," said the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church in Columbia. "Hopkins, with its money, helps the local hospital to have more strength and gives it the ability to do more research and provide more services."

In the past few years, Broccolino said, 15 prospective partners have shown interest in Howard County General and its desirable customer base.

Hospital officials had the luxury of selecting among the applicants. Though some health care experts called the hospital's sale an auction, Alton J. Scavo, chairman of the hospital's board of trustees, said, "It never was a question of price."

The final contenders were Helix Health, St. Agnes and Hopkins. They battled to the very end.

Tactic questioned

In the final days of the negotiations, a full-page ad appeared in The Sun, calling on hospital officials not to eliminate St. Agnes from the running because of its religious affiliation. Some had feared the loss of birth control and abortion services if Roman Catholic Church-affiliated St. Agnes was chosen.

Addressed to the hospital's board of trustees, the text of the advertisement read "religious affiliation of any bidder should not be a factor in the discussion. We strongly object to the publicized comments from a few persons stating their categorical objection to the selection of a religiously-affiliated bidder."

The ad seemed to be the work of the six local clergy who signed it -- but its appearance came as a surprise to some of them, who thought they were merely signing a letter on St. Agnes' behalf. The $2,400 ad turned out to have been funded by St. Agnes.

"It came as a total shock to see the ad in the paper with my name on it," said retired Rabbi Martin Siegel. "The players weren't out front. Not only did I not pay for it, I was never told about it. That is not kosher."

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