- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — The House of Delegates passed an emergency bill yesterday aimed at keeping Prince George’s Hospital Center from closing because of serious financial problems.

The measure would create an authority to run the hospital system until it can be sold to a private company. The bill now goes to the Senate, which is considering a similar measure.

The 268-bed hospital in Cheverly and three related facilities are owned by Prince George’s County and operated by a nonprofit company.

Lawmakers set aside $50 million in the fall to save the hospital. The bill calls for $128 million in operating and capital state support from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2015. The county would put up a total of $131 million from fiscal 2008 through 2015.

Under the legislation, if the county doesn’t make its required payments, the state will redirect other funds slated to go to the county to make up the difference. That could include cuts in local aid or grant funds or withholding income tax revenue.

The hospital, which contains Maryland’s second-busiest trauma center, has come close to closing several times in recent years. That is partly because it serves many poor patients who cannot pay for treatment. The center treats about 180,000 patients a year.

The hospital system currently is run by Dimensions Healthcare System, a nonprofit company.

The measure also affects the 96-bed Laurel Regional Hospital, the Bowie Health Center, an emergency care center, and the 107-bed Gladys Spellman Nursing Center.

Last year, efforts to create a state-county partnership for the hospital system fell apart in the waning hours of the General Assembly. Gov. Martin O’Malley announced an agreement earlier this month that has the backing of local officials, including Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson.

•••

Private-sector employees who receive paid leave in Maryland would be allowed to use it while caring for a sick spouse, child or parent, under legislation approved yesterday by the House.

The measure also would prohibit an employer from taking action against an employee for taking time off to care for a sick relative.

The bill passed on a 91-45 vote.

Delegate Ronald A. George, Anne Arundel Republican, said the measure could cause employers to simply offer less paid leave — or none at all — so that they would not be affected by the law. Critics also said the bill could be detrimental to small businesses.

“If we pass this bill, we might as well take the chalk out of our desk and put one more hash mark on the board of the number of bills that prove that Maryland is becoming increasingly anti-business,” Mr. George said.

Delegate Dereck E. Davis, Prince George’s Democrat, underscored that the measure applies only to businesses that already offer paid leave.

“You can only use this leave if there is a current leave policy already in place,” Mr. Davis said. “It doesn’t provide for any additional leave.”

A similar bill has passed the Senate.

Under current state law, employers must provide comparable paid leave only for employees who adopt a child, if the employer provides paid leave for the birth of a child.

The bill would not affect leave granted under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which provides for unpaid leave for a birth, adoption, care for an immediate family member who is ill or a serious health condition affecting the employee.

A small business with fewer than 50 employees is usually excluded from the federal law. Under the Maryland legislation, however, any small business that provides paid leave benefits would be affected.

•••

The House approved creating a special license plate for families that lose a relative in combat.

The measure establishes a special license plate for people who receive a Department of Defense Gold Star, which is given to a surviving spouse, parent or next of kin of a member of the armed forces who dies in combat.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

•••

Walking is one step closer to official designation as the Maryland state exercise.

The Senate yesterday unanimously agreed to a preliminary version of a bill to add walking to the list of Maryland symbols. The legislature passed a similar bill in 2003, but it was vetoed.

The Senate must vote on the walking bill again before it goes to the House. Supporters say the official designation will encourage people to exercise.

Senators previously passed a bill to create an official dessert, the Smith Island cake. Maryland currently has 21 official symbols, including two official state sports — lacrosse and jousting.

•••

The House passed a measure that would require pets riding in the back of pickup trucks to be in cages.

The measure now heads to the Senate.

Only pets would be affected by the bill, not livestock. Violators would pay a $100 fine for a first offense, and $250 for a second offense.

Twenty-five states have similar laws, including Virginia.

•••

The House approved a bill to study whether quiet hybrid vehicles should be louder so they don’t pose a threat to blind pedestrians, who can’t hear the vehicles when they try to cross the street.

Minimum noise levels are not addressed under current law.

A similar proposal is pending in the Senate.

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