Panel to fix Prince George's health care does not find buyer, sources say

May 19, 2010|By Lena H. Sun and Jonathan Mummolo, The Washington Post

A special panel in charge of finding a company to take over Prince George's County's ailing health care system has been unable to resolve the sale of the system after a two-year search, according to sources familiar with the deliberations.

The panel chairman, Ken Glover, declined to comment on specific findings of a report to be presented at the panel's final meeting on Friday. But he said in an interview Tuesday that he is optimistic that county and state officials would move quickly on a plan. "There are several interested parties who have submitted their credentials to go forward in the process of transferring the assets," he said.

Failure to find a speedy resolution would mean one of the state's most intractable and expensive problems will likely become more pressing. It could complicate matters for Gov. Martin O'Malley in a must-win area of the state as the Democrat enters the heart of his re-election campaign.

A source familiar with the deliberations said the panel "is not going to select anybody specifically, no." Instead, the source said, the report will recommend steps that the county, state and hospital system managers need to take "to improve the level of care and service and to stabilize the system."

One of those recommendations would call for a new hospital to replace the flagship Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, a process that could take several years, said the sources, who spoke under the condition of anonymity so as not to pre-empt Friday's report.

Bidders have been interested in separate parts of the system. But the panel's mandate is to ensure that the facilities are sold at the same time to prevent buyers from cherry-picking the system's more profitable Laurel and Bowie hospitals, which have more paying patients and are more profitable than Prince George's Hospital Center.

The long-troubled system, which includes the three hospitals and two nursing homes, serves as many as 180,000 patients a year, many of them poor and uninsured. The system has been losing millions for years, industry analysts said, and has survived only through repeated infusions of public cash.

The hospital system, owned by the county and managed by the nonprofit Dimensions Healthcare System, has long been a source of friction between the state and the county — and specifically between O'Malley and the current Prince George's leadership. State and local leaders have wrangled over how best to stabilize the system, particularly the hospital center. It is Maryland's second-busiest trauma facility and has been responsible for much of Dimensions' annual losses.

Amid much fanfare two years ago, O'Malley and County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat, signed a deal that created the independent panel — formally known as the Prince George's County Hospital Authority — to find a health care company to take over the system. The state and county each agreed to pay $12 million annually for two years to keep the hospital system afloat while the appointed seven-member appointed board searched for potential buyers.

However, Johnson announced in October that state budget cuts would lead the county to trim its fiscal 2010 payment to the system by $3 million, a move that drew protests from hospital workers.

The county and state funding is supposed to run out June 30, raising alarms among some officials.

"The issue is: Is the governor going to step up and solve this issue to ensure that the hospital remains viable into the future, or is he going to walk away?" said Del. Doyle L. Niemann, a Prince George's Democrat who sponsored a bill to create the independent panel.

If a deal is not closed soon, he said, the state and county may not be obligated to provide an additional $174 million in promised long-term funding to whatever entities entity takes over the system. "We're at risk of putting it all back in the political arena," Niemann said. "And we're right back where we were."

Spokesmen for Maryland Health Secretary John M. Colmers and Johnson declined to comment because the panel's report is not yet public.

Politicians have promised to come up with a long-term solution that would phase out county ownership,find ways to improve the system's reputation and attract more privately insured patients. About 30 percent of Prince George's residents seek health care outside the county.

To entice buyers, the panel agreed earlier this year to allow the state and county to assume Dimensions' long-term debt of about $130 million.

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