Havre de Grace council passes hospital zoning ordinance changes

The City of Havre de Grace zoning code will have a requirement that any free-standing medical facility, such as the one proposed by University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, be designed for future conversion to a full-service general hospital, following this week’s passage of a city ordinance.

“Given the choice for a free-standing medical facility or a full-service hospital, the answer for me is a simple one — I want a full-service hospital,” City Council President David Glenn said following a roughly hour-long public hearing Monday on the ordinance, which updates the section of the city’s zoning code dealing with hospitals.

The council later approved the ordinance unanimously. It will take effect Feb. 15.

People packed the council chambers for the hearing, spilling into the hallway. At least 75 people attended, including those in the room for other business during the regular council meeting. Including the hearing, the session lasted nearly four hours.

About 20 people, including Havre de Grace residents, Harford County government representatives, Upper Chesapeake Health board members and executives from UCH and its parent organization, the University of Maryland Medical System, spoke on the hospital zoning ordinance.

Upper Chesapeake Health plans to close Harford Memorial Hospital, which has stood in downtown Havre de Grace for about a century, open a free-standing medical center on the health system’s 97-acre site near Bulle Rock and the I-95/Route 155 interchange and consolidate medical services for Harford County in an expanded Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air by late 2020 or early 2021.

The Vision 2020 plan is under review by the Maryland Health Care Commission.

It has been controversial in Havre de Grace, as people fear the loss of a downtown economic anchor in Harford Memorial and surrounding medical offices, potential security risks for residential areas adjacent to the psychiatric facility and the impact of transporting patients from Havre de Grace to Bel Air for medical needs that can be treated now at Harford Memorial.

Those same concerns were expressed during Monday’s hearing, which was the second public hearing on Ordinance 996. Five people spoke at the first hearing in January, and city leaders wanted to give residents another chance to share their views.

Howard Rosenberg, a Bulle Rock resident, said Monday he “came out wonderfully cured” after being treated for a recent stroke at Harford Memorial, about 10 minutes from his house. He expressed concerns about what could have happened if he had to go to Bel Air, about 30 minutes away.

“I don’t think I would have been as in good shape as I am now,” he said.

James McCauley, a member of the Harford Community College Board of Trustees, has lived in Havre de Grace for 20 years. He said he thinks the city “can certainly use a local general hospital.”

He cited concerns about the economic impact of closing Harford Memorial and the risk for patients given “triage” at the Havre de Grace medical center ER and transported to Bel Air.

“I really urge [UCH], from an economic standpoint, from a health standpoint, to reconsider some of these issues,” McCauley said.

Dr. Roger Schneider, chairman of the UCH Board of Directors, presented a dire financial picture for Upper Chesapeake and health systems across the state and nation as hospitals lose money and close, and it becomes harder and harder to recruit physicians and specialists.

“The financial realities are making it extremely difficult for this organization to serve this large [Harford] county with two full-service hospitals,” he said.

Schneider said consolidating services at one facility “for the highest-acuity patients only makes financial sense, and from a quality standpoint is in the best interest of the citizens.”

Mark Wasserman, senior vice president of external affairs for UMMS, said he understands the sensitivity of the issue for Havre de Grace. He also conveyed the system’s “full support” of Vision 2020 as officials wrestle with “change, enormous change, overtaking the world of health care.”

“It is pivotal for us to realize the regional vision that we’re attempting to bring to Harford County and the western part of Cecil County,” he said.

Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake and a Havre de Grace resident, said the recent announcement that Union Hospital, of Elkton, will merge with LifeBridge Health will not have a major impact on UCH’s Vision 2020. Upper Chesapeake planned to partner with Union on behavioral health services.

“Our overall plan is not contingent upon that collaboration,” he said.

Dr. Fermin Barrueto Jr., UCH’s chief medical officer, said Upper Chesapeake has worked with the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, or MIEMSS, to ensure it can provide the same stroke care it provides at Harford Memorial at the new medical center.

“Mr. Rosenberg, you would be taken care of in that free-standing medical facility,” Barrueto said.

Ordinance 996 was amended with definitions for terms such as “free-standing medical facility,” “general hospital” and “special hospital” that are in line with the definitions in state law for those facilities.

Councilman Michael Hitchings, who read the amendments into the record, said later that they are “directly related” to what UCH is going through with the state approval process. He said city leaders want to keep their zoning code consistent with any changes in state definitions.

“There are certain definitions that we realized were not included in our ordinance; those are added as a result,” Hitchings said after the meeting.

Hitchings said the city’s Planning Commission approved Upper Chesapeake’s site plan for its Bulle Rock campus during the commission’s Jan. 29 meeting. It is the same site plan UCH submitted in 2013 when it proposed a medical campus with separate office buildings, retail and a hotel.

Upper Chesapeake withdrew the plans in 2013, citing concerns about financing and uncertainty over the impact of the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

The Vision 2020 plan, which UCH unveiled in early 2016, calls for building the free-standing medical facility on the same property. The proposed facility would include a full-service emergency room and a psychiatric hospital that can provide inpatient and outpatient services for patients’ mental health needs.

That would include substance abuse treatment as part of a “secondary diagnosis” for psychiatric patients, according to Barrueto.

The site plan has not changed, however, but the planning commission has approved one-year extensions each year for the past few years.

Schneider, the UCH board chair, pledged health system will work with Havre de Grace elected leaders on the closing and reuse of Harford Memorial, and they will be “transparent” and “candid” with the community.

“They will not sell you down the road,” he said.

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