- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2011

Maryland and Prince George’s County announced a partnership Thursday with the University of Maryland Medical System to attempt to stabilize the county’s debt-addled and understaffed hospital system.

The partnership would unite the parties in a $600 million effort to improve quality and access to health care across Prince George’s and build a new regional medical center in the county within the next four years.

Officials are optimistic the agreement will help improve health care in a county that has struggled with high mortality rates, a shortage of primary care physicians and a high number of uninsured residents.

“We have a vision for the future,” Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said at a press conference in Upper Marlboro. “In the past, we were always looking for a partner or a suitor. We feel that we have found that partner.”

The county’s three primary medical facilities - Bowie Health Center, Laurel Regional Hospital and Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly - are run by nonprofit Dimensions Healthcare System.

All three have been saddled with debt for years, and Prince George’s Hospital Center narrowly avoided shutdowns in 2006 and 2007 due to its financial woes.

The aging facilities’ debts are in part the result of uncollected fees charged to uninsured patients. About 80,000 adults in the county do not have health insurance - one-third more than in Montgomery County and twice as many as in Howard County, according to a 2009 report by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research group.

The Prince George’s hospitals’ problems have been compounded by a failure to attract many of the county’s insured residents, who choose to seek medical care elsewhere.

Officials hope to address many of the problems by building a new hospital, which would serve the entire county as well as Southern Maryland. Its location and cost have yet to be determined, and officials expect to spend the next 12 to 18 months researching the cost and feasibility of the plan.

The University of Maryland Medical System - a nonprofit that runs 12 hospitals in the state and generates $2.5 billion in annual revenue - will work alongside state and county officials, Dimensions and the University System of Maryland to develop the strategic plan.

The medical system’s involvement “will add instant credibility to a system that has struggled to sustain itself,” said County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat.

Robert Chrencik, UMMS’ chief executive officer, said the new hospital could open within four years if everything goes according to plan. He also said the hospital could recover its initial costs and break even within two years after opening.

He said the facility would operate as a teaching hospital, relying in part on medical students to reduce costs, and that he expects its high-quality care will draw more insured patients.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a Democrat, acknowledged that political and funding hurdles might still remain, but that the agreement is an important first step toward improving health care in the county.

“This is just a starting point,” said Mr. Brown, a former Prince George’s delegate. “We’re all here celebrating and it’s great, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”