Necessary protections for Havre de Grace, Harford County [Editorial]

The Aegis

Proposed changes to Havre de Grace’s city zoning ordinance last week would both strengthen the city’s position with regard to University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s plans for its new Bulle Rock Campus and ensure the door will be left open to eventually build a regional hospital on that site, as the health care company’s plans evolve.

These are proposed changes that we applaud, for both stated reasons the city is pursuing them.

While The Aegis has been supportive of Upper Chesapeake’s Vision 2020 Plan to build a new medical center and 40-bed psychiatric hospital on the 97-acre Bulle Rock site, the plan comes with a steep price for many city residents, namely closure of the 105-year-old Harford Memorial Hospital, long a lifeblood of Havre de Grace’s economy.

City officials have generally embraced the Vision 2020 Plan to date, but have also cast a wary eye. While Upper Chesapeake officials have stated repeatedly that Harford Memorial’s physical plant is too old to renovate to contemporary health care standards and have given assurances the site will be redeveloped with full community input, there are many residents who see Vision 2020 as bringing diminished services to their community.

These people have some justification. The medical center proposed at Bulle Rock, which will include a fully staffed and serviceable emergency room and outpatient services, essentially is a scaled up urgent care facility, like those found throughout Harford County. People with acute health issues who come to the new emergency room will likely still need to be transferred to Upper Chesapeake Medical in Bel Air or another hospital.

As for the psychiatric hospital, Upper Chesapeake officials have made a good case that more such services are needed in Harford County and the region but again, that has not assuaged the suspicion of some local residents that the trade-off for closing Harford Memorial is one-sided for the owner, not necessarily the community.

One change in the city zoning ordinance being proposed would include in the definition of freestanding medical center a provision that the owner, not patients, would responsible for paying for ambulance transfer to an acute care facility. The need for such transfers and who would pay for them has been raised time and time again in community meetings held about Vision 2020. Putting the onus on the operator, not the patient, to pay would seem reasonable at first blush, but could very well be subject to legal challenge and might not stand up. So, a word of caution is in order.

Also proposed is a requirement/definition that a free-standing medical facility “must provide a full service, 24/7 Emergency Department or its equivalent.” That’s what Upper Chesapeake says it will be doing, but this language protects the city and its residents in the event management and/or the marketplace changes.

Another proposed change would require the owner of the freestanding medical center to design it in such a way that it could be easily expandable to a larger facility, such as a regional hospital.

“Any freestanding medical facility must be designed and construction in such a manner as to allow for conversion at a future date to a general hospital without the need for alterations and modifications that would require demolition of more than 15 percent of any existing facility,” the amended ordinance reads.

Here’s what Havre de Grace Planning Director Ben Martorana had to say about it: “We are looking to Upper Chesapeake Health to have a second phase to its plan that would hopefully re-evaluate the need for where a general hospital should be. We would argue we’re the best suited for it.”

He has a point. Upper Chesapeake introduced Vision 2020 in early 2016. The plan, which also includes adding medical/surgical beds to the Bel Air hospital, is still on track to happen by late 2020 or early 2021, essentially five-plus years which might be considered an eternity in the health care industry.

There’s no question that the populations of Harford and Cecil counties are aging, and not enough new households are being created in either county to offset that demographic. Older people require more health care services.

The Upper Chesapeake facility in Bel Air is highly utilized and, frankly, crowded. The prospects for expanding out on the site are limited, and parking continues to be at a premium. The hospital is six miles from Interstate 95 along a highway corridor that is frequently congested.

Maybe Harford County can’t support two hospitals under given market and regulatory conditions, but who is to say that can’t change?

Given the glacial pace at which regulated health care facilities get approved, financed and built in Maryland, it’s wise not only for Havre de Grace, but for Upper Chesapeake Health to keep all options open for the Bulle Rock campus moving forward.

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