Dereliction of duty

April 12, 2007

The political fiasco that threatens to quickly shutter Prince George's Hospital Center and create a public health emergency in Maryland illustrates why elected officials should not be overseeing medical facilities.

With virtually no explanation, the Prince George's County Council turned down at the last minute an offer from the state that could have rescued the hospital from its immediate financial crisis and put it on a long-term path to solvency, thus making it attractive to private companies such as those that run health systems in the rest of Maryland.

The council's decision left two options: The county alone will have to foot the $30 million bill for another one-year bailout, or the hospital center and its four satellite facilities will simply close their doors - sending the 188,000 patients they treat each year to other overbooked locations or leaving them without medical care at all.

The first option simply buys time for further deterioration; the second would be irresponsible in the extreme. The nine-member council, which unanimously bucked the wishes of County Executive Jack B. Johnson and the General Assembly delegation, should quickly signal a change of heart to Gov. Martin O'Malley before it's too late to salvage the deal.

Prince George's County officials have been trying for many years to put the once-county-run hospital system under private management, but have never been willing to totally relinquish control of a major employment center that still packs some political capital.

As opportunities for outright sale to private companies came and went, so did chances to upgrade and modernize the facilities. Recruiting of medical staff became more difficult, and insured patients with options chose increasingly to go elsewhere.

Now the hospital is in the untenable position of operating a major state trauma and obstetrics center with half its patients uninsured. Under a state program, hospitals - but not physicians - are reimbursed for treating poor people. So the hospital itself has had to pay doctors, running up enormous losses that can't be offset, as they are in Baltimore, by more-affluent patients.

In rejecting the governor's rescue bid, Council Chairwoman Camille Exum offered only vague excuses about feeling rushed. But she was so unyielding on the point that state officials and other Maryland hospitals have launched a frantic campaign to work out how Prince George's patients can be accommodated elsewhere, putting the needs of the most urgent cases first.

If such a plan has to be put into effect, the County Council should be ashamed of itself.

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