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Some breathing space, maybe [Editorial]

The Aegis

When University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health officials unveiled their ambitious Vision 2020 in early 2016, the proposal appeared to be doable within that time frame.

With 2017 slipping into its final four months, however, it may be time to take a step back and re-evaluate both the plan and the timetable.

The health system, which owns Harford County’s two general hospitals and is the county’s largest private employer, held another get-together last week to update residents of Harford and Cecil counties on Vision 2020.

The plan calls for building a new medical center on land off of Bulle Rock Parkway in Havre de Grace, adding more rooms at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and ultimately closing Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace. The new Havre de Grace medical center will not offer inpatient and surgical services, but will have a full-service emergency department and outpatient services at a prime location next to the Interstate 95/Route 155 interchange. It will also have a separate mental health treatment facility, something that indeed appears to be much needed in the medical system’s service area.

But questions about Vision 2020 remain, and there continues to be an amount of public skepticism, despite Upper Chesapeake’s efforts to hold public forums like last week’s in Level to keep people abreast of how the process is progressing.

Upper Chesapeake President and CEO Lyle Sheldon said the health system still expects to occupy the new facilities by late 2020 or early 2021. He also said the organization now plans to construct a medical office building on the 97-acre Bulle Rock site in conjunction with building the new medical center. This comes as no surprise, as the original plan for this new campus called for dozens of new buildings.

The health system also must still secure state approval to close Harford Memorial and open the new facilities, a process officials expect will take one year, but could take longer. Sheldon conceded the timetable for Vision 2020 is contingent on that process not getting bogged down.

The best way to ensure it won’t is to substantially mute any public opposition, particularly to the closing of Harford Memorial. But Havre de Grace residents and some city officials remain ill at ease over the prospect of having a massive building in the heart of their downtown with no defined use.

Upper Chesapeake has pledged to dovetail redevelopment of the downtown site with the construction of the Bulle Rock facility, but much of what happens with the former will be dependent on the economy; in other words, there’s such thing for that property as a sure thing at this juncture.

Sheldon said any new development on the Union Avenue site should have “sustainable community benefits” and “make good business sense,” but to this point nobody has any idea what that might be.

Also clouding the picture is the fact that nothing will be done in Harford County without leaders of University of Maryland Health System giving a green light. Last week, UMMS announced it would be acquiring hospitals in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that have been in financial difficulty. The parent organization of Upper Chesapeake Health has held up proposals for Harford County before, so it would come as no surprise if the Vision 2020 becomes Vision 2022 or beyond.

Perhaps a little breathing space would be good, if only to get a better defined plan for redevelopment of the Harford Memorial site. Then again, the way health care delivery is bound to change owing to the political climate in Washington, there’s no telling what could lie ahead, including for the local health system.

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