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Laurel Regional Hospital could see upgrades if UMD partnership approved

State and local officials hope that a multi-party agreement announced July 21 will result in improvements at Laurel Regional Hospital.

The new partnership between the University of Maryland Medical System, the University System of Maryland and Dimensions Healthcare System aims to stabilize and expand health care in Prince Georges' County. The financially strapped Dimensions manages the county's three primary medical facilities: Laurel Regional Hospital, the Bowie Health Center and Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly.

Although the development and construction of a $600 million regional medical teaching center and a health sciences campus at the University of Maryland Baltimore are the biggest pieces of the agreement, state and hospital officials said Laurel Regional will benefit from the partnership in a number of areas.

John O'Brien, Dimensions' chief operations officer, said the agreement will allow for renovations at Laurel Regional. "We'll see what we have to do to get the best impact for the communities that hospitals like Laurel Regional serve."

Mary Lehman, who represents Laurel on the Prince George's County Council, said she's excited about the partnership and sees it as breathing long overdue new life into the entire system and poising Laurel Regional for an expanded role in the county's health care.

"Laurel Regional's role will be more clear as time moves on, and it won't be marginalized or go away with this partnership," Lehman said. "Laurel Regional will still have an important role to play as a community hospital and an important role to play in providing basic care as part of a larger framework."

The bulk of the medical teaching programs will take place at the regional medical center, but as part of the larger system, Laurel Regional will benefit from training as well, O'Brien said.

"The agreement describes a full relationship, so there will be teaching opportunities for the entire system and will vary by facility," O'Brien said.

The first phase of the agreement calls for the partners to determine and the feasibility of building a medical teaching center, as well as the viability of a health sciences campus. The next phase would lay out the costs and amounts each partner would fund, with phase three being the actual design of the center and a site selected in central Prince George's for the regional medical center. Although any of the parties can pull out of the agreement at any time, Lehman does not think that will happen.

"I don't see a scenario where someone will pull out, because there's such a great need for this in Prince George's County. The regional (medical teaching) center will fill a need in Southern Maryland in Calvert and Charles counties for specialized medical care. This will allow people to stay in the county versus going to George Washington, Georgetown or Johns Hopkins hospitals for specialty care," she said. "Everyone is optimistic it will work, and we've made the first critical step."

In addition to attracting patients to a new regional medical facility and the hospitals in the Dimensions network, state and local officials hope the partnership leads to a financial solution for Dimensions, which has struggled financially for several years now. Its current debt is estimated at $200 million. The uncertainty about the company's finances in recent years has caused some residents to wonder about the continued survival of their local hospitals.

In 2007, state and county officials hammered out a $329 million shared agreement to keep the hospital center financially sound, but that agreement disintegrated. Under a temporary arrangement, Dimensions gets help from the state and county, this year about $30 million. Although the partners in the new agreement have made it clear that they do not plan to pay off Dimensions' debts, they and Dimensions officials hope the multi-party arrangement will result in a financially strong health-care system for the county.

"The objective is for the system to be financially sound, self-sufficient and provide a broader range of services through this new relationship," O'Brien said. "We want to serve Southern Maryland and attract those who go past us for care by providing more sophisticated services."

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