Three new facilities proposed as part of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s extensive plans to reconfigure hospital services in Harford County — an expanded Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, a special psychiatric hospital in Aberdeen and a free-standing medical facility in Aberdeen to replace Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace — are expected to be open by early 2023, according to Upper Chesapeake officials.
That timeline depends on multiple factors, though, including any impacts the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic has on the economy, Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, noted.
The next phases of a project announced in early 2016, phases which include completing design work, obtaining local permits and starting construction, come on the heels of the Maryland Health Care Commission’s approval of the project last week.
Upper Chesapeake leaders, its board of directors, medical staff and others affiliated with the health system “are ecstatic about this decision” by the state commission, Sheldon said Tuesday.
“The fact that we now have clarity on the timeline, [that] we now can start more robust planning on the service delivery model, is just so important for us,” Sheldon added.
The project includes an emphasis on behavioral health services as more and more people in Upper Chesapeake’s service area in Harford County and western Cecil County deal with mental health issues and drug addiction, as well consolidating long-term inpatient hospital services in Bel Air.
The free-standing medical center, slated to be built on the Merritt Properties corporate campus off of Route 22 in Aberdeen, includes a full-service emergency room as well as short-stay medical beds for patient observation, beds reserved for emergency mental health patients, medical imaging and rehabilitation services, plus space for primary care doctors and outpatient medical services.
The 33-bed psychiatric hospital — which will include shell space for seven more beds — will be built on the same Aberdeen campus and offer inpatient and outpatient behavioral health services.
Harford Memorial Hospital, which has been part of downtown Havre de Grace for decades, will be closed once the Aberdeen facilities are constructed and approved to open. Its medical and surgical beds, meant for long-term inpatient needs, will be consolidated with existing beds in the Bel Air hospital.
Three stories will be built on top of the Kaufman Cancer Center at UCMC; those new stories will include space to accommodate the growing services provided by the cancer center, 42 short-stay medical observation beds and 30 medical/surgical beds, according to Upper Chesapeake’s Your Health. Our Mission. webpage on the project.
Plans to close Harford Memorial have prompted strong objections from Havre de Grace residents, city leaders and state legislators who represent the Havre de Grace area in Annapolis. The city government has pushed Upper Chesapeake to commit to building a full-service general hospital, initially when the plans called for building it on property the health system owns near Bulle Rock and later when plans shifted to building it in Aberdeen, rather than the free-standing medical center to replace Harford Memorial.
City officials wrote to Gov. Larry Hogan and the director of the Maryland Health Care Commission upon learning that the project would be on the MHCC’s April 16 agenda, citing concerns about voting on such a significant change to local hospital services in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They took a years-old application, based on the needs of health care from 2016 or ’17, and they consider that the current needs of Maryland right in the middle of a global pandemic, the biggest health care crisis of a generation,” Mayor William T. Martin said during a City Council meeting Monday, as he and City Council members vented their frustrations at UCH, the state health commission and Harford County leaders who supported the project despite Havre de Grace’s objections.
Health commissioners and staff acknowledged the city’s concerns during their meeting last week but noted the project has been in the works for a number of years — Sheldon said that UCH has been working with the agency since the fall of 2014.
One commissioner, Dr. Gerard O’Connor, raised concerns about taking action and noted the pandemic could have a major impact on how medical services are delivered in the future and the community’s behavioral health needs as people deal with anxieties about the disease, their economic prospects and the challenge of stay-at-home orders. O’Connor cast the only vote against approvals of the free-standing medical center and psychiatric hospital.
Sheldon noted O’Connor’s concerns Tuesday and said the pandemic could affect some aspects of how health care is delivered through Upper Chesapeake’s new facilities, such as a greater emphasis on telehealth services and how some patient rooms are designed as “positive pressure rooms” versus “negative pressure rooms.”
Negative pressure rooms allow hospitals to regulate the airflow in and out of a room in which a patient is isolated for treatment of an airborne infection, thus avoiding contamination in the rest of the hospital.
There are patients in Upper Chesapeake hospitals “every day, independent of the pandemic, that have flu or have another type of virus,” Sheldon noted.
“There may be more patients that, for example, may have a flu or a virus and how do we anticipate, from a design standpoint the flexibility to handle those [cases] going forward,” he said.
Sheldon also encouraged people to remain in contact with their primary care doctors during the pandemic, and stressed that telehealth options are available so patients can talk with their doctors remotely.
He also encouraged them to visit their local emergency rooms if they feel the need to do so.
“Now more than ever, Emergency Departments are the nation’s safety net,” Sheldon stated. “[Upper Chesapeake Health] is always open and here for every member of our community who needs health care service.”