Historic hospital in West Baltimore closes its doors

Liberty Medical folds after mergers

August 02, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A piece of local black history has come to an end with the closing of the financially strapped Liberty Medical Center in West Baltimore.

The 282-bed hospital, which employed about 400 people on 15 acres at 2600 Liberty Heights Ave. in the Mondawmin neighborhood, closed Saturday.

Liberty was the successor to Provident Hospital, the city's only traditionally black hospital that began in a rowhouse in 1894 and after a series of moves ended up at the Mondawmin location in 1970.

Although the opening in 1970 was overshadowed by City Council wrangling over whether to use the word "colored" or the more modern term "black" in a resolution honoring the new $16 million building, the hospital was heralded by community leaders as the "finest example of multi-racial teamwork" in terms of fund raising and construction.

More than $1 million was raised by the black community, an amount far exceeding its goal of $60,000, for construction. Provident became one of the first all-electric hospitals in the nation and among the first with color television sets in every room.

"It was a beautiful hospital," said Vivian V. Nicholson, 68, of the 2000 block of Anoka Ave., a neighbor to Liberty.

In 1986, the financially strapped Provident merged with Lutheran Hospital and became Liberty. But financial problems continued, forcing the administration to propose a merger with Bon Secours Hospital in 1996.

Liberty's closing had been planned since the proposal as the hospital became a victim of the city's excess of hospital beds and fierce competition. State regulators approved the merger in February.

The move is expected to save Bon Secours $30 million over the next five years.

"The whole emphasis in our country is for people not to be in the hospital. These days everything is quick and medical care is almost like being at McDonald's so we had to retool ourselves," said Jackie Gaines, vice president of community health for Bon Secours Baltimore Health System.

The majority of Liberty's clientele were people with drug and mental problems, and on any given night only 90 of its 282 beds were occupied, Gaines said.

A recent hospital and Maryland Health Resources Planning Commission study showed that in the six ZIP codes in West and Northwest Baltimore from which Bon Secours and Liberty draw patients, the per capita income is $9,920 a year.

But the hospitals, by operating so far below full capacity levels, are 10 percent to 15 percent more costly than the state average and regulators have been pressuring them to bring down costs.

On Saturday, Liberty's emergency room took its last patient at 10 a.m. and the hospital doors closed at 1 p.m. The remaining patients were transferred to Bon Secours, less than three miles away.

The main hospital building -- a seven-story, beige brick structure -- is expected to be razed in a year or two to make way for a series of buildings for outpatient surgery centers and doctors' offices.

Other buildings on Liberty's campus -- a wellness prevention center and a behavioral health clinic -- will extend their hours to midnight for those with drug and mental problems.

Bon Secours will build a $6 million, 83-unit housing complex for senior citizens on Liberty's campus. Construction is expected to begin Aug. 31.

But for neighbors, the main hospital building -- a stop on the African-American Heritage Tour -- represented the city's only black hospital with predominantly black doctors, staff and patients. Some are angered by the closing.

"It's shameful, it represents black history," said Gertrude Wright of the 2000 block of Anoka Ave. "It's supposed to be our hospital. Why close it up?"

"We have no `I remember whens,' and nothing to show our kids," said Darryl E. Murrell, 46, who lives on the same block as Wright.

Gaines said grim financial prospects outweighed the hospital's historical significance. After Liberty's merger with Bon Secours, the hospital administration decided to close Liberty because state regulators determined it needed more than $20 million in renovations, compared with $2.7 million for Bon Secours.

After the closing was announced, the unions representing nurses and support staff at Liberty tried to block the merger. At a rally in December, Bob Moore, president of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union District, and Ernest R. Grecco, president of the Baltimore Central Labor Council, vowed to "fight like hell" to make sure no jobs were lost.

Gaines said some of Liberty's 400 employees have been hired at Bon Secours and the others will be given a severance package.

"No one is happy about losing their job," Gaines said. "But we have been working on this for greater than a year now so it wasn't like a shock."

Pub Date: 8/02/99

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