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Chestertown residents who have been fighting the possible closure of the Eastern Shore town's hospital won a victory this week when two influential state legislators and Maryland's health secretary stepped in to keep the facility open.

The lawmakers' action gives them and the health care system that runs the hospital more time to work with community members to develop a plan to keep the hospital — and other rural facilities like it — viable.

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Community members became concerned about the fate of University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Chestertown after learning of a consultant's report suggesting the hospital's owners were considering turning the 30-bed, full-service facility into an ambulatory care center that would provide outpatient and emergency medical care but not inpatient or nonemergency care. Under that scenario, residents would have to travel 45 minutes or more to get to the nearest hospital.

State Sen. Thomas Middleton, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, told residents at a community meeting Thursday that he would use the legislative or regulatory process to keep medical services intact at the hospital for the time being.

State officials would then, with input from the community and local officials, determine how best to serve the Eastern Shore's medical needs.

Rural areas often face difficulty providing health care because it's hard to attract doctors and to serve enough patients to turn the profit needed to keep hospitals open. In the face of these pressures, rural hospitals across the country have been closing.

The plan to preserve the Chestertown hospital is backed by Van T. Mitchell, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Del. Peter A. Hammen, chair of the House Health and Government Operations Committee. The plan calls for an amendment exempting Eastern Shore hospitals from pending legislation that would allow hospitals to create free-standing outpatient medical facilities.

"We will put this process in place and come up with what we think could be a national model to address the whole issue of these rural hospital closures," Middleton said Friday.

Those fighting to keep a full-service hospital in Chestertown applauded the plan to keep the facility open and explore options for meeting the health care needs of local residents.

"It's not a permanent resolution yet for what is going on, but it is a reprieve," said Dr. Jerry O'Connor, a surgeon at the hospital who has been leading efforts to keep the facility open. "I think they will be very amenable to hearing the impact to physicians and the community."

O'Connor said the Chestertown hospital has become a feeder to Shore Medical Center at Easton in Talbot County. He also said that the University of Maryland Shore Regional Health system, which owns both hospitals, has not tried hard enough to recruit new doctors and improve the Chestertown hospital.

He and other residents, local politicians, and business leaders launched a campaign to keep the hospital open that included sending more than 1,000 postcards to the office of Gov. Larry Hogan.

Shore Regional Health System, an affiliate of the University of Maryland Medical System, also endorsed the plan put forth this week by state officials.

"This plan to pause and evaluate rural health care needs on Maryland's Eastern Shore is a plan we enthusiastically endorse," Ken Kozel, Shore Regional's president and CEO, said in a statement. "We believe that the state's rural health analysis will help to bring clarity for our path forward."

Kozel previously dismissed the suggestion that Shore Regional planned to close the hospital as pure speculation and said no decisions had been made. The hospital, he said, needed to make changes because the health environment was transitioning to one that emphasizes fewer hospital stays and more preventive care.

In a letter to the Eastern Shore delegation, Middleton, Mitchell and Hammen said they recognized the challenges rural hospitals face under the state's new health care model

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"No hospitals on the Eastern Shore will close until the process is completed and a plan is developed with the support of the Eastern Shore delegation," the letter read.

State Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., an Eastern Shore Republican, said the new plan "prevents Shore Health from unilaterally creating its own plan."

Administrators at Washington College in Chestertown also were happy about the alternative plan. They had expressed concern about recruiting students to their campus because parents might not want to send their children if there were no hospital near them.

"We hope to see fruitful discussion by all parties that will serve to ensure the safety and well-being of not only Washington College students, faculty, and staff, but the greater Kent County and Chestertown communities as well," said college President Sheila C. Bair.

Many of the roughly 300 residents who live in the Heron Point retirement community say they moved there because they could easily get to Chestertown hospital. The head of Heron Point was pleased but cautious about the new prospects.

"It is a tentative victory, but the issue still has to be resolved," said Garret Falcone, Heron Point's executive director.

Local business leaders also voiced concern. The head of Dixon Valve & Coupling Co., which employs 400 people, said not having a hospital would hurt business and make it hard to attract workers.

"I am hopeful that the long-term resolution is that we will have an acute-care hospital with the best care," said Bob Grace, the company's president. "That is sure what it sounded like last night."

Residents had criticized the University of Maryland Medical System for failing to live up to promises to enhance services when it purchased the hospital several years ago. Robert A. Chrencik, the medical system's president and CEO, said the system was always supportive of the hospital and that new plan would help with the challenges it faces.

"We deeply appreciate the legislature's understanding of the challenges facing rural hospitals in Maryland, and the commitment of state officials to help seek solutions to ensure patients have access to quality health care across our state over the long term," Chrencik said.

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