- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley said yesterday that saving the financially ailing Prince George’s hospital system is important to the state because its loss would be a big blow to Maryland’s overall ability to care for the sick.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, is pushing for a state-county partnership to prevent the closure of the Prince George’s Hospital Center and three other facilities, which are owned by the county and run by a nonprofit company. They collectively serve about 180,000 patients a year, many of them uninsured. The hospital system also operates Maryland’s second-busiest trauma center.

“We are very hopeful that we will be able to come together to be able to take shared responsibility for creating a quality health care system in Prince George’s County,” said Mr. O’Malley, who has proposed a $404 million plan over eight years to save the system.

John M. Colmers, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, saidthe hospital has “significant payments that are due in mid-April that have to be made for them to continue.”

If lawmakers approve legislation creating a new health care system, $20 million that the governor put in a supplemental budget would be used as a down payment for the plan. If they don’t enact a new law, the money could be used for an orderly closure.

The measure would take operations out of county hands and create a new hospital authority, which would include five members appointed by the governor and two by the county.

The state would spend $176.7 million, or about 44 percent of the cost. The county would contribute $227.7 million, or about 56 percent, under Mr. O’Malley’s proposal.

“We leave it to the leadership of Prince George’s County to figure out the best means for arriving at their part of this responsibility,” Mr. O’Malley said.

The plan has been resisted by some Prince George’s County officials who object to the percentage the county would pay. Still, Mr. O’Malley thanked Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat, for working to build consensus with other county officials.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s Democrat, said he put together a group after hearing the bill March 29. The group included county officials and O’Malley administration officials who met “to hash out the issues,” Mr. Currie said.

“I think the product we see in the governor’s [proposal] is close,” Mr. Currie said.

Mr. Johnson responded yesterday in a joint statement with the County Council that a final agreement was “getting closer” after a local tax imposed by the state on local taxpayers was off the table. The county has agreed to give up the hospital buildings and grounds, estimated to be worth $100 million, and to contribute $96 million over eight years at $12 million per year.

“We are inching closer, but there is still a gap of some $30 million,” Mr. Johnson said. “Since most of the state assistance is capital related, and ours is cash, we believe the state must do more.”

Mr. O’Malley is hoping the measure will pass, though the General Assembly adjourns Monday. If the bill fails, it’s not clear how long the hospital would be able to remain open.

Pegeen Townsend, senior vice president for the Maryland Hospital Association, said she was hopeful state officials would find a way to keep open the facility, where about 3,600 babies are born each year and other critical health services are provided to the poor.

“I just have got to believe that with this much at stake and these many people relying on this hospital for their access to health care, I have to believe that the policy-makers are going to come together and develop a solution,” Mrs. Townsend said.

Mr. O’Malley conceded the proposal will cause many lawmakers to argue that “the folks they directly represent do not have a dog in this hunt.”

“But from a statewide standpoint, I believe that failing to act and allowing the hospital to close will have a detrimental effect on all of us and only drive up uncompensated care and reduce our capacity to serve and secure and safeguard the health needs of people throughout our state,” he said.

Benjamin Mason, chairman of the Maryland Hospital Association Board, said there was not enough capacity in the region’s hospitals to absorb 180,000 patients.

Mr. O’Malley said the Cheverly hospital was badly needed for the patients it sees regularly and in the event of a flu pandemic or a bioterrorism event.

The hospital is now run by Dimensions Healthcare System, a nonprofit formed in 1982 that also runs Laurel Regional Hospital, the Bowie Health Center and the Gladys Spellman Specialty Hospital and Nursing Center. The other facilities also face closure.

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