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State bill would protect workers affected by hospital closures

Owners of closed hospitals would have to pay into a state displaced workers fund

Statewide legislation is being considered in the Maryland General Assembly that would provide some relief for displaced employees of hospitals that close, such as University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace which is slated to close in the next several years.

Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, whose district includes Havre de Grace, is sponsoring House Bill 932, requiring hospital operators to pay a fee to cover the cost of assisting any employees who lose their jobs because of the closing or merger.

The bill applies to a community hospital that is closed and then converted to a free-standing medical center, or is acquired by a larger hospital or health system.

The hospital operator would have to pay one-tenth of a percent of gross revenues for the fiscal year preceding the closure; the money would go to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the bill outlines.

"They must pay .01 percent of profit into a fund to retrain and place workers that have been displaced because of this voluntary action on their part," Lisanti said during a recent interview.

Lisanti said she is concerned about the loss of "skilled jobs" at Harford Memorial. "They're going to be across the gamut," she said.

The bill was heard in the House Health and Government Operations Committee on March 2, and just went before the Health Facilities and Pharmaceuticals Subcommittee for a work session Thursday afternoon.

Subcommittees review bills that have been heard by a full committee and can decide whether to kill it or send it back out to the committee, which then decides whether or not to send it to the House floor for a vote, according to General Assembly staff.

Lisanti said she is working with state Sen. Brian Feldman, a Democrat from Montgomery County, who sponsored a companion Senate bill, to create amendments and get the House and Senate versions aligned.

"If we can do that, then we'll try to take them to the full committees," Lisanti said Thursday.

Feldman is sponsoring Senate Bill 379, along with Sen. Stephen Hershey Jr., a Republican who represents the Upper Eastern Shore.

Lisanti has close to 40 co-sponsors for her House bill.

"It's been a popular bill, and it's had a lot of feedback from hospital employees," she said.

Lisanti said she has heard from doctors, nurses and hospital staff statewide, who are concerned about their local hospitals closing or being downsized, such as others in Laurel and Chestertown, in addition to Harford Memorial.

"While it impacts a local hospital system [in Harford County], it's a statewide bill and it has statewide impacts," she said.

The 2017 legislative session ends April 10.

The Maryland Hospital Association, an advocacy group for Maryland health systems, supports the "general intent" of the bill but says it's the "wrong approach," said Brett McCone, vice president of rate setting for the MHA.

McCone testified earlier in the session before House and Senate committees on the respective bills.

"We support a smooth glide path for those employees whose roles may change in a hospital conversion, including relocating within the same health care system, or within the health care field or transitioning to new opportunities in other careers, and we believe hospitals should lead the way with these investments," McCone said Thursday.

He noted a state fund, to which hospitals and health systems would contribute for employee retraining, was established in the 1980s and still exists in state statutes.

Money deposited in the fund was used to support employees of hospitals that closed in the Baltimore area in the 1990s, McCone said.

"We believe the statutory authority already exists to leverage the hospital retraining fund, and this would apply if a hospital were converted to a free-standing medical facility," McCone said.

McCone noted recent acquisitions, such as Carroll County Hospital Center by LifeBridge Health and St. Joseph Medical Center by the University of Maryland Medical System, "typically have had no impact or a net positive impact on the workforce."

University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health announced in early 2016 that it intended to close Harford Memorial and develop a free-standing hybrid medical center on 97 acres near the Route 155/I-95 interchange in Havre de Grace.

Harford Memorial has been an anchor in downtown Havre de Grace for 100-plus years, but Upper Chesapeake officials have said the 84-bed, full-service hospital is aging, and there is no room to expand on the 9-acre site at South Union Avenue and Revolution Street.

The hospital occupies 279,400 square feet, while the proposed medical center would be 194,000 square feet with about 52 beds, with a dozen for short-term stays and 40 beds in a secure, inpatient behavioral health unit. Upper Chesapeake Health is just beginning the state regulatory process to implement the change, which it expects to have accomplished by the end of 2020.

Harford Memorial has a 600-person workforce, which would be reduced to 500 for the new medical center, according to Upper Chesapeake officials.

Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake, said at the time of the announcement he does not expect overall job losses in the health system, which has about 3,200 staffers and is Harford County's largest private employer.

As part of Upper Chesapeake Health's overall plan, medical/surgical services now provided at Harford Memorial would shift to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

Sheldon has said some Havre de Grace jobs would shift to the Bel Air hospital, and jobs will be added systemwide over time. An Upper Chesapeake spokesperson could not be reached for comment on HB 932 Thursday.

Legislation was passed during the 2016 General Assembly session that would exempt health systems from having to obtain a certificate of need from the state before building a free-standing medical center, such as the one proposed for Havre de Grace.

Upper Chesapeake and the Maryland Hospital Association supported that legislation; Lisanti and other legislators in counties where hospital closings are under consideration opposed it.

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