- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

The parent company of Prince George’s Hospital Center has approached union officials with a proposal that would freeze pensions and save the struggling company millions of dollars per year, union leaders say.

But union leaders say the proposed pension freeze alone is unlikely to keep Dimensions Healthcare Systems — one of the region’s largest health systems — afloat.

Debbie Wilkes, a hospital nurse and union leader, told the Dimensions’ board of directors last week that “there is no basis for believing that a pension freeze would prevent … slipping into bankruptcy anyway.”

Miss Wilkes, membership coordinator for the Dimensions nurses chapter of the Service Employees International Union, said yesterday workers are planning to picket at Prince George’s Hospital Center and other Dimensions’ facilities next week.

Dimensions — the nonprofit group that runs Prince George’s Hospital Center, Laurel Regional Hospital and the Bowie Health Campus — employs about 2,000 workers.

A Dimensions spokeswoman yesterday said the company hasn’t made any decisions about the pension.

“They’re still in negotiations and they haven’t come into any kind of agreement,” spokeswoman Suzanne Almalel said.

The pension troubles mark the latest challenge for Dimensions, which has struggled financially in recent years. Last year, the health system received a $45 million bailout from state and county officials.

In June, G.T. Dunlop Ecker, chief executive officer for Dimensions, said in a memo to workers that the company failed to properly notify them about missing mandatory quarterly pension contributions from 2002 to 2004.

He also said the company was under “severe financial stress.”

At the time, company officials also said they made the annual contributions by the final due dates in 2002 and 2003 and that many employees would not see a change in pension benefits.

Union officials say Dimensions made no contributions to employee pensions for three years between 1998 to 2002.

Dimensions has notified the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. — the government agency that oversees retirement plans — about the shortfall.

Miss Wilkes told the board last week that proposed pension cuts, aimed at saving $1.25 million per fiscal quarter, won’t be enough to stem the company’s financial woes.

“Employees are basically being asked to pay twice for their employers’ past sins,” she said.

Last week, Dimensions sought to add more than $6 million to its balance sheets by billing the D.C. government for providing treatment to thousands of uninsured city residents.

In a letter to D.C. officials, Mr. Ecker said the Prince George’s health system has treated thousands of uninsured D.C. residents. He said city residents sought care in Maryland because of the District’s decision to close its public hospital in 2001.

D.C. officials balked at paying the bill. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said many uninsured Maryland patients receive care in D.C. hospitals.

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