Hopkins deal to purchase Howard County General a reunion of sorts

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 stood in the hospital's ambulatory wing watching the presidents of the two entities shake hands on the $142 million deal.

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.

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 we're 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.

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.

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.

Howard County General officials had the luxury of selecting from among several 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.

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.

St. Agnes officials have denied placing the ad, saying they only "facilitated" it. Local clergy say the Rev. Richard H. Tillman of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia asked them to support the statement, but did not say it would be published in the newspaper. Tillman did not respond to repeated phone calls and visits.

Shortly after the announcement of the Hopkins victory, Robert Pezzoli, St. Agnes' president and chief executive officer, released a statement expressing his disappointment and frustration.

He criticized the board for being "influenced by the perception that a vocal minority of the Howard County community would have difficulty accepting a religiously affiliated institution as its partner."

"We had a strong proposal and I think it's unfortunate for the community," Pezzoli said. "It would have been an opportunity to lower costs, combine services and focus on better care instead of continuing to compete [with Howard County General]."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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