New center brings inpatient hospice care to Howard County

Many families had been traveling to Balto. Co, other locations

  • Gilchrist Hospice Care will begin receiving patients on May 23.
Gilchrist Hospice Care will begin receiving patients on May… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
May 20, 2011|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Fragrant white roses and flickering candlelight put the finishing touches on the intimate 50th-anniversary dinner for Claudette and Darrel "Whitey" Hoover.

Enlarged portraits of the longtime Howard County couple on their March 3, 1961, wedding day and on other special occasions graced the room. Framed family photos were arranged next to the crystal-and-china place settings, all of which had been hastily transferred from the Hoovers' Woodstock home to a conference table at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

When Whitey was admitted suddenly to Gilchrist's 34-bed inpatient facility on the couple's golden anniversary, their two daughters "scooped up everything and created a wonderful little dinner for us there," recalled Claudette. Eight days later, Whitey died at age 73 of an inoperable lung tumor that had been discovered five months before.

Starting Monday, Howard County families like the Hoovers won't have to trek halfway around the Baltimore Beltway any longer to gain access to end-of-life care for loved ones who have greater pain management needs than a home hospice setting can handle.

Gilchrist Center Howard County will begin accepting patients May 23 for its new 10-bed unit in a wing of Harmony Hall Assisted Living, located off Cedar Lane in Columbia. A grand opening celebration is planned for June 15.

"We've been contemplating doing this for a couple of years," said Cathy Hamel, Gilchrist's executive director and chief operating officer. "A free-standing center is a very expensive endeavor, but Harmony Hall had the space we needed so this was an economical way of handling it."

Construction began in October for the 10-bed unit, and another 10 beds are available if needed, she said.

Of the 4,200 patients who are projected to have been cared for by the Towson-based nonprofit when the fiscal year ends June 30, 20 percent will have come from Howard County, Hamel said. The center averages 575 total patients in its daily census, treating people in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, she noted.

Nearly three out of four Howard families who sought hospice care for a terminally ill patient in 2009 — or 531 out of 734 — were treated by Gilchrist, according to the Maryland Health Care Commission's most recent hospice survey.

Yet the number of patients using the 34-bed inpatient center in Towson was disproportionately low, Hamel said, and so the decision was made to establish a site in Howard County to eliminate the travel barrier. Gilchrist also discovered that Howard's population is "graying" at a faster rate than anywhere else in the state.

The Maryland State Data Center estimates that the number of Howard residents age 55 years or older will more than double between 2000 and 2020, from 39,223 to 88,642.

This 155 percent growth rate puts Howard County at the top of all Maryland jurisdictions, which will experience an average 72.4 percent growth rate, according to the center. This information is quoted in the 2005-2010 Howard County Human Services Master Plan.

Lou Grimmel Sr., president and CEO of Lorien Health Systems, which manages Harmony Hall, said, "It seems like a no-brainer, but this is very much needed here to fill out the continuum of care."

Grimmel, who has been in the health care business for 38 years and has lived in Howard County for 30 years, said he's been interested in bringing inpatient hospice care to the county for eight years.

"Young people move here from all over the state because of our proximity to Washington and Fort Meade," he said. "Then mom and dad move here to be closer to their children. I call that the 'import factor.'"

While construction of the Columbia facility cost $1.7 million, Gilchrist has set a fundraising goal of $2.5 million in order to set aside $800,000 to establish a fund to pay for patients' insurance shortfalls, Hamel said.

"When you see these patients in need of acute, round-the-clock care you know [inpatient hospice] has to be there" no matter what the cost, Hamel said about providing care that often exceeds insurance reimbursements. "It's the right thing to do."

When the Towson facility was built in 1996 with a capacity of 24 beds, the entire $8.3 million cost was raised through community donations, said Lori Mulligan, Gilchrist's director of development and marketing. The center was expanded by 10 beds in 2009, and again the community pitched in.

"Inpatient hospice care is a natural continuation of our services, and we've had generous community support in the past," Hamel said. "That's our intent and our expectation in Howard County."

Located in the Howard County Health Park, the facility will be two miles from Howard County General Hospital and in the midst of a complex that specializes in senior care, making it "the ideal location," Hamel said.

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