Health care deal fails

Prince George's County Council rejects plan to save hospital

April 11, 2007|By Andrew A. Green and M. William Salganik | Andrew A. Green and M. William Salganik,Sun reporters

Prince George's Hospital Center, the largest medical facility in the state's second-largest county, could close within months, sending its largely indigent patient population into the already crowded emergency rooms of hospitals in the region, including neighboring Anne Arundel and Howard counties, officials say.

"It's not just a financial issue but the impact on the health delivery system in Maryland," said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a former delegate from Prince George's County who helped lead unsuccessful negotiations to bail out the hospital 30 miles south of Baltimore. "If this hospital closes, it will be felt in every community in Maryland as other facilities have to absorb the patient load that relies on the Prince George's Hospital System."

The Prince George's county executive, Jack B. Johnson, said he was not giving up hope of saving the financially troubled health system. But officials at the quasi-public agency that runs the Cheverly hospital said the County Council's refusal late Monday to accept Gov. Martin O'Malley's eight-year, $329 million plan to modernize and financially strengthen the institution means it will likely close, sending its 188,000 annual patients elsewhere.

State leaders called the County Council's decision "childish" and "criminal," but council members defended their action, saying they did not have sufficient time to evaluate the deal and shouldn't be held financially accountable for the not-for-profit hospital system's mismanagement. They also expressed concern about tying the hands of the next County Council.

The system, which has its main campus off Route 295 in Cheverly and satellite branches in Bowie and Laurel, includes most of the hospital beds in the county. Many of its patients lack health insurance.

"We're just waiting," said Suzanne C. Almalel, spokeswoman for Dimensions Healthcare System, which operates the hospital on county-owned land. "We're hoping something comes up, but our only plan is our closure plan."

She said the health system's chief executive officer, G.T. Dunlop Ecker, would recommend closing the facilities at a board of directors meeting Monday.

O'Malley offered $159 million in state aid over eight years, provided that the county put up $170 million, enough to cover operating losses and help build a new hospital on the Prince George's Hospital Center campus. A new, independent governing authority - appointed by the governor and local officials - would have managed the system, with bids to be sought for a new operator in 2008 or 2009.

"We really wanted to be able to fix this and get us on a course to bring high-quality health care [that] the people of Prince George's County deserve, and unfortunately we weren't able to convince the council of that," O'Malley said.

The health system has been in a downward spiral - punctuated by state and county bailout payments, consulting studies and changes in management - for more than five years.

"The patient has gotten sicker. It has been allowed to deteriorate," John M. Colmers, the state health secretary, said yesterday.

Absent a deal, the state has committed $20 million to facilitate the orderly closing of the hospital, and Colmers said yesterday he is drawing up plans to carry it out.

The budget approved by the General Assembly doesn't require that the state close the hospital, but that may be the practical effect. Without aid, the hospital would be forced to shut its doors within weeks because it can't afford required debt service payments. The state budget said that if a deal weren't struck before Monday night, O'Malley could only provide aid as part of a plan to close the facility. The hospital has 2,300 employees, county and union officials said.

Johnson declined to cast blame, saying he would have to lead negotiations to resurrect a deal. But he left no doubt that it was the council, not he, who walked away from the bargaining table. Other Prince George's leaders were not so diplomatic.

"What happened is the council threw a childish fit and decided to close the hospital," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann, a Prince George's Democrat. "They have a million excuses for their behavior, but none of them make any sense."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who represents Prince George's and Calvert counties, called the council's actions "criminal."

"You've got the county executive, the governor, the General Assembly agreeing on a plan, and the council saying, `We're not going to come up with any money at all,'" Miller said. "It's ridiculous."

Prince George's council members defended their decision.

"We can't and will not authorize additional county funds unless it presents a long-term, viable solution," Council Chairwoman Camille A. Exum said. "The proposed deal didn't accomplish the goal, and the last-minute push to enact it left too many unanswered questions."

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