One Havre de Grace municipal leader is seeking the support of fellow elected officials who serve Harford County, so all can “come to the table and have a discussion” about the best way to preserve health care services for residents of Havre de Grace and surrounding areas.
University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, which operates Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace, is continuing with its effort to obtain state approval to close Harford Memorial, open a new free-standing medical center and special psychiatric hospital in Aberdeen and consolidate many of the area’s medical services in an expanded Bel Air hospital.
“I’m concerned that we’re putting our residents at risk without adequate proof that a free-standing medical facility is truly the right option,” David Glenn, president of the Havre de Grace City Council, said Monday.
Glenn discussed, during the council meeting Monday evening, the letter he sent via email Nov. 22 to state, county and municipal elected leaders.
“I am concerned we are putting our residents at risk as we move forward with a Free-Standing Medical Facility (FSMF) concept without adequate proof or research that such a facility is preferable for our community,” Glenn wrote in the letter, a copy of which he provided to The Aegis.
“When a community has challenged the closure of a full-service hospital in exchange for a facility that will be unable to treat patients who need immediate acute care, it is incumbent for elected officials to research and do their due diligence,” he continued. “For one, I am not convinced all the pros and cons associated with such a proposal have been adequately quantified.”
Glenn said he has had only one response so far, from state Del. Steve Johnson. The Democratic legislator represents Subdistrict 34A, along with fellow Democratic Del. Mary Ann Listanti. Their district covers multiple communities along Route 40, including Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.
The council president attributed the lack of response to the recent Thanksgiving holiday. Glenn said it was “troubling” to him that it appeared other recipients weren’t “willing to come to the table." He stressed that the issue of health care in the Havre de Grace area is “something that really needs discussion," and he looks forward to other elected officials “reaching out and having that discussion.”
Havre de Grace pushback
Glenn and his City Council colleagues have been pushing back in recent weeks on the idea that the city “lost” Harford Memorial, which remains open, because of the Upper Chesapeake Health project. Council members have stressed that they are committed to keeping a full-service hospital in the city.
“I’m still getting a lot of feedback from residents, basically saying to me, ‘You guys blew the hospital ... you guys let the hospital move away,’" Glenn said during the Nov. 4 council meeting.
Other council members, including Casi Boyer, David Martin, James Ringsaker and Carolyn Zinner, shared their concerns during another meeting on Nov. 18.
“Everybody up here on the council, we’re fighting for you,” Ringsaker said. “We’re fighting for the health care in Havre de Grace and western Cecil County, because we need health care here.”
Glenn’s letter was prompted by comments made by area legislators about the hospital project during the Greater Harford Night gathering with state legislators and local leaders last month. He stated that he was “truly taken back” by some of their comments.
He stated in his letter that “the true elephant in the room that evening, which I feel is not being addressed is not the location, but the loss of a General Hospital and the potential adverse impact on the delivery of high-quality and cost-effective healthcare for the residents (both of Harford and Western Cecil County).”
The council president said, in an interview Nov. 21, that it appears to him many elected leaders have expressed support for Upper Chesapeake’s current plans or remained silent. Glenn said he wants, through his letter, to “try to drum up their support [for Havre de Grace], or at least shed some light that tells the whole picture so they can make an informed decision when they have all the facts.”
“I think the one thing that Havre de Grace did — that nobody else did — we, from Day One, fought for a full-service hospital because we felt like that was what Harford County needed,” he said.
Upper Chesapeake Health announced their plans, known at the time as Vision 2020, in early 2016. The health system initially planned to build its free-standing medical center, with a separate facility for patients dealing with mental health and addiction issues, on 97 acres it owns near the Route 155/I-95 interchange on the north end of town. Many residents, as well as city leaders, opposed closing and replacing Harford Memorial.
The health system has shifted its plans and is seeking approval to build the medical center and psychiatric hospital in and around the vacant Merritt Properties office building off of Route 22 in Aberdeen. All aspects of UCH’s plans must be approved by the Maryland Health Care Commission before construction begins.
“Can we really do with just one hospital?” Glenn asked. “We have one of the biggest employers in the state of Maryland in Aberdeen Proving Ground, and what they do on a daily basis is inherently dangerous.”
Glenn cited things happening in the Aberdeen-Havre de Grace area that could require the services of a general hospital, such as opioid overdoses and traffic crashes he said happen daily on I-95. He also noted how people in western Cecil County depend on Harford Memorial.
Ringsaker recalled, during the Nov. 18 meeting, taking his 12-year-old son to the emergency room at Harford Memorial the night of Nov. 4 after receiving a call from his wife that their son had cut his foot open, “completely to the tendon,” while in the bathroom.
Father and son spent more than eight hours waiting in the ER, as only one doctor was on duty hospital-wide that night, Ringsaker said. He leveled the accusation that Upper Chesapeake leaders “plan to fail” by not investing in staffing and infrastructure at Harford Memorial.
“They plan to fail, and so we’re going to fight for you,” he said, addressing city residents.
Councilman David Martin also addressed comments made at Harford Night, such as how Havre de Grace “lost” its hospital and that patients in the Havre de Grace area would only have to travel an extra 10 minutes to get to the Aberdeen medical center.
“It’s called ‘the golden hour’ for a reason,” Martin, a former Maryland State Police trooper, said of the ideal time period to treat a person hurt in a traumatic incident, typically the first hour after the incident happens.
“What’s another 10 minutes — you’re talking possibly someone’s life,” Martin added.
Councilwoman Carolyn Zinner read a letter she wrote and sent to local newspapers in the winter of 2016, issuing an “urgent request” to Aberdeen, Havre de Grace and Perryville residents who depend on Harford Memorial.
Zinner urged people at the time to show their support for keeping a full-service hospital in Havre de Grace and to contact Lisanti. The legislator has spoken out against closing Harford Memorial while testifying in Annapolis and during community meetings in Harford County.
“I don’t believe this needs to be a binary choice, one or the other,” Zinner said Nov. 18. “The argument is for increased mental health services — as well as help for individuals with addiction — or acute care.”
She said both populations, behavioral health and acute medical care, are served by Harford Memorial, noting that “maybe we do not serve the behavioral health population well enough today, because of the opioid crisis and other factors.
“That doesn’t say we can’t, so I still do not believe that this is a one or the other choice,” Zinner added. “I think we can have both and we should have both, and we deserve both in this county and our neighboring counties.”
Councilwoman Casi Boyer said she sits on the Maryland Health Care Commission and emphasized that she must be careful in her comments “because I don’t want to put anything in jeopardy on either side.”
“But, there are some things I can say, and I’m adamant about, one of which is the quality of health care,” she said.
Boyer encouraged people to visit The Leapfrog Group’s website for ratings and reports on health care facilities, https://www.leapfroggroup.org/ratings-reports, and search Harford County hospitals by ZIP code to see how they compare with others in a 50-mile radius. She noted that the ratings for the Bel Air and Havre de Grace hospitals do not compare favorably with those in neighboring communities.
“The amount of money that we spend, for our health care dollars, is the same or more than everyone around us, yet we are getting a lower quality of care,” she said.
Boyer said Harford County residents should expect a high level of health care.
“I will let you make your decision on where you want to go with your health care dollars, because it’s a very important decision to make,” she said.
Shift to Aberdeen
Upper Chesapeake and Havre de Grace came into conflict in 2018 as the City Council approved an update to its zoning regulations requiring that any free-standing medical center built in the city be designed so it can be converted to a general hospital. The health system and city also differed on processes for approving plans for the medical center and development of other lots on the site, improvements to the highway interchange and other local roads, as well as water service.
Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake, said in a statement in the spring of 2018 that “these conditions for approval have moved the goalposts for the project, substantially changing the previously expected timeline and increasing costs for the opening of the new campus.”
“Additionally, the City has created an unpredictable local approval process impacting future development for the property,” Sheldon continued.
Upper Chesapeake completed its $18 million acquisition of the Merritt Properties site in Aberdeen this past summer.
The Aberdeen campus is expected to have a full-service emergency department open 24/7, medical beds for patients needing “short-stay” care, as well as offices for primary care physicians and facilities for medical imaging and testing, respiratory and physical therapy services, and a “full array of critically-needed inpatient and outpatient” services for behavioral health patients, according to the project website.
Upper Chesapeake officials are awaiting regulatory approvals from the state. A petition, titled “Save Healthcare in Harford County,” has been posted online asking the Maryland Health Care Commission to approve Upper Chesapeake’s plans.
Martha Mallonee, director of corporate communications, marketing and public relations for Upper Chesapeake, said via email Nov. 25 that the petition came from her office and that it had been available in UCH’s market for a week as planned.
Glenn said city officials would “never fault” Upper Chesapeake for moving to Aberdeen if they feel it is a good move from a business perspective.
“We feel like the real issue that’s not being addressed is the potential adverse impact on the delivery of high-quality, cost-effective health care for residents,” he said.
‘Agree to disagree’
Mallonee said Upper Chesapeake officials are aware of Glenn’s letter “and at this point, we must respectfully agree to disagree.”
“No one likes change, and we realize and appreciate the comfort of keeping things the same,” she said in a statement issued via email Nov. 25. “We are the experts in health care and together with the regulatory entities, carefully review real data and trends. Improvements in science and technology have changed how, when and where we deliver care.”
Upper Chesapeake is responsible for delivering health care to the community, and “we take that responsibility very seriously — many of us call Harford and western Cecil County home,” Mallonee stated.
“Our focus is and has always been on safety, quality and efficiency in a family and patient-centered care model,” she continued. “We are working diligently on our planning as well as collaborating with the regulatory entities to make the best health care decisions we can for our community. Together with our Board of Directors, medical staff and clinical support team, we are confident in our plans.”
While construction on the Aberdeen and Bel Air medical facilities cannot proceed until the state approves plans, Upper Chesapeake is overseeing infrastructure improvements in both locations. They include building a “right-in, right-out” access to the Aberdeen campus from Route 22 and an expansion of the West Gate parking lot in Bel Air, according to Mallonee.
It will take two years to make the transition from Harford Memorial to the medical center in Aberdeen once the state issues its approvals, Mallonee said in a previous statement issued Nov. 22.
“The University of Maryland Harford Memorial (UM HMH) Hospital continues to support the health care services for the northeastern region of our community and will continue to do so until we have completed the construction of our Aberdeen campus,” Mallonee stated.