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Havre de Grace leaders urge governor to stop review of plans to close hospital amid coronavirus pandemic

Havre de Grace leaders have asked Gov. Larry Hogan to order the delay of a Maryland Health Care Commission meeting, scheduled for this week, to review University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s application to consolidate its hospital services in Harford County.

City leaders decried the health care commission’s plan to hold the review Thursday in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, since the consolidation of services includes plans to close Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and convert it into a free-standing medical center in nearby Aberdeen.

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“Through the great work of your Administration, with the entire State desperately trying to increase the number of available hospital beds, and with [Harford Memorial Hospital] proving it has the ability to deliver essential critical care and expand that care on short notice, the MHCC’s action on this matter is unacceptable,” Mayor William T. Martin wrote in a letter to Hogan dated last Friday.

Martin asked the governor to “stop this action” via executive order and defer the commission’s review of Upper Chesapeake Health’s application until the state can “revisit the criteria used for closing such a critical acute care facility in Harford County.”

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The governor’s office has received the city’s letter, spokesperson Shareese Churchill confirmed in an email, but the office has “nothing further to add at this point.”

The 15-member commission is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. Thursday, according to the agenda posted on the MHCC website. Members are slated to take action on Upper Chesapeake’s “Reconfiguration of Hospital Facilities and Services in Harford County” application.

The mayor’s letter is available on the city website. City Council President David Glenn also wrote an email Monday to Ben Steffen, executive director of the state health care commission, urging him to pull the action item from the agenda and defer making a decision until the state can review its criteria for closing acute care facilities.

“We need to protect our most valuable resource — PEOPLE,” Glenn wrote.

He reiterated the mayor’s claim that Harford Memorial has been able to deliver essential care and expand its amount of available beds “on short notice” during the pandemic.

“Any and all after action reports associated with this global pandemic will without a doubt provide invaluable supporting documentation that will pave the path forward for the future of healthcare in the entire State of Maryland, as well as Harford County,” Glenn wrote.

Health system plans

Upper Chesapeake’s plans, which were announced in early 2016, include closing Harford Memorial Hospital, an anchor in downtown Havre de Grace. The health system is seeking the commission’s approval to convert Harford Memorial into a free-standing medical facility — that facility would have a full-service emergency room as well as beds for patients with “short-stay” medical needs and imaging, laboratory, testing and other services.

The free-standing facility would be on Upper Chesapeake’s new campus in Aberdeen, built in and around the Merritt Properties office complex off of Route 22, near the interchange with I-95. The campus would have, in addition to the medical center, a 33-bed special psychiatric hospital where patients would receive inpatient and outpatient mental health services, plus office space for primary care doctors and physicians, according to UCH’s Your Health. Our Mission website on its project, and its application with the MHCC.

Medical and surgical beds at Harford Memorial would be shifted to an expanded Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

The health care commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on Upper Chesapeake Health’s application in three parts. The first covers the health system’s request for an exemption for certificate of need review to convert Harford Memorial into a free-standing medical facility.

The second also is a request for exemption from certificate of need review, in this case to change the Bel Air hospital’s bed capacity. The third is a request for a certificate of need to establish the special psychiatric hospital, according to the agenda.

The Maryland General Assembly approved during its 2016 session legislation to grant health systems exemptions from obtaining certificates of need when converting a hospital to a free-standing medical facility. Upper Chesapeake, as well as the Maryland Hospital Association advocacy organization supported the legislation, as UCH officials determined the exemption would make the state’s regulatory process less cumbersome.

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The City of Havre de Grace has battled publicly with Upper Chesapeake over the closure of Harford Memorial during the past few years, as the mayor and City Council urged the health system to maintain a general hospital in the city. Many members of the community have expressed their opposition to UCH’s plans, too.

Martin said, in his letter to the governor, that the city rejects the concept of a free-standing medical center, calling it “inadequate and dangerous for the delivery of health care in Harford County.”

Residents and city leaders in Aberdeen have expressed support for the new medical center in their community, and Bel Air leaders have shown support for expanding the hospital in the Harford County seat.

Upper Chesapeake responds

Upper Chesapeake Health has been, in partnership with its parent organization the University of Maryland Medical System, government agencies and state commissions related to emergency services and health care, “actively and aggressively caring for and working tirelessly to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus in our community,” president and CEO Lyle Sheldon said in response to Havre de Grace’s request to the governor.

“We recognize and are highly sensitive to the state of anxiety that exists in our community, our state and our nation related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in an emailed statement.

“However, this situation cannot be used to spearhead a political agenda to upend a well-developed, comprehensive plan to most optimally meet the health care needs of our community going forward,” Sheldon added.

He also noted that “it has always been our plan” to complete the Aberdeen medical center and expanded Bel Air hospital before closing Harford Memorial.

“These interrelated projects will not be open and operational for at least two and a half years, well beyond the end of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he stated.

Sheldon also has said during community meetings that the health system plans to work with Havre de Grace and the firm Cushman & Wakefield on ways to redevelop the hospital site.

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Harford Memorial Hospital “continues to serve the community as an acute care hospital caring for patients as it always has,” Sheldon stated.

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“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, both facilities [Harford Memorial and Upper Chesapeake] are employing the same precautions and preparations,” he concluded. “We are currently adequately and appropriately caring for COVID-positive patients in both of our facilities.”

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