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Upper Chesapeake pledges continued service to Havre de Grace community while city leaders express ire over Harford Memorial Hospital closure

University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health remains committed to the patients served through Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace, a hospital slated to close in the coming years as UCH begins a major transition in how its hospital services are delivered in Harford County.

City officials in Havre de Grace, however, lambasted Upper Chesapeake’s leadership and other county officials at its most recent meeting, stating the closure will leave the community underserved in the future.

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Harford Memorial, an anchor of downtown Havre de Grace for decades, will close once its replacement — a free-standing medical facility and adjacent special psychiatric hospital — are built in Aberdeen. Its medical and surgical beds, meant for patients needing long-term hospital stays, will be consolidated with other medical/surgical beds in a three-story addition built on the Upper Chesapeake Medical Center campus in Bel Air.

The new and expanded facilities, which received approval from the Maryland Health Care Commission April 16, are expected to open in early 2023, barring any negative impacts on the economy from the current novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Harford Memorial will close once the new facilities receive approval to open. Upper Chesapeake officials “continue to be committed to serving the patient population that Harford Memorial Hospital services today,” said Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of UCH.

Sheldon noted that the Harford Memorial service area is well beyond the City of Havre de Grace and includes much of eastern Harford County as far out as Churchville and western Cecil County communities such as Port Deposit, Conowingo and Rising Sun.

“We continue to be committed to providing services in that Havre de Grace location, until we transition the facilities, and we will continue to serve that service area,” Sheldon said Tuesday.

Sheldon said UCH officials are “very comfortable when we look at this model” of consolidated hospital services, which includes the free-standing medical center with its full-service emergency department and “short-stay” hospital beds, as well as offices for primary care physicians and outpatient medical services.

The free-standing medical center concept has been a subject of significant concern for many Havre de Grace residents and the elected officials who represent them since Upper Chesapeake Health announced its plans in early 2016. Residents and elected officials fear the medical center will not be sufficient for area patients, compared to a general hospital such as Harford Memorial.

The mayor and City Council members did not hold back their anger over the state health commission’s decision during a council meeting Monday. They criticized Upper Chesapeake Health, the commission, Gov. Larry Hogan for not taking action to remove the matter from the MHCC’s docket despite a request from Mayor William T. Martin to do so, as well as Harford County leaders such as County Executive Barry Glassman who have supported UCH’s project and urged the state commission to approve it.

The mayor, as well as Council President David Glenn and state Dels. Mary Ann Lisanti and Steve Johnson, urged the health care commission to remove Upper Chesapeake Health’s application from its April 16 agenda, citing concerns about making a major decision on Harford’s hospital services in the midst of the pandemic.

“They voted,” Martin said of the state commission. “The hospital is going to be closed down at Lyle Sheldon’s pleasure.”

The mayor blasted UCH, saying the health system “sells a good bill of goods” and “lies to people.”

“You know why I say they lie to people?” Martin asked. “Because they lie about the City of Havre de Grace. If you’re willing to lie about a municipal government to get what you want, imagine what you’ll tell your patients.”

Sheldon took Havre de Grace leaders to task ahead of the MHCC meeting, saying the coronavirus pandemic “cannot be used to spearhead a political agenda to upend a well-developed, comprehensive plan” that is optimal for meeting the community’s future health care needs.

That sentiment was echoed in letters sent to the commission by Harford County and Bel Air officials. Glassman noted that the concerns raised ahead of the meeting “are not shared consistently across the majority of elected officials here in the County nor myself as County Executive.”

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“The dramatization that is taking place, and framed within the context of this COVID-19 pandemic is inappropriate and inaccurately presented on many different fronts,” Glassman added.

Havre de Grace Councilman Jason Robertson acknowledged that “this business plan from Upper Cheaspeake makes plenty of sense” and that he would support it if he was on the UCH board, “if I weren’t from this community.”

“Being from this community, I understand that the delivery of the health care is not going to be adequate for what our current needs are, and certainly 10 years from now if we continue to develop at the rate that we are,” Robertson said. “We’re going to be severely under-serviced, especially as a lot of our population continues to age.”

Robertson expressed his anger and frustration at the lack of support from elected leaders outside Havre de Grace, but he excoriated members of his own community who have accused city leaders of losing Harford Memorial Hospital.

“If you would put one [expletive] ounce of the energy that you put into defacing any of us, into fighting this cause or putting that frustration where it belongs, we would probably be talking about a different situation right now,” he said.

Councilwoman Carolyn Zinner said she considered Upper Chesapeake’s plans “really a money grab in terms of changing the whole structure” of local health care when she learned about them four years ago.

She blasted for-profit health systems with highly paid executives as a key factor in the state of health care in the U.S. She also praised health care workers on the front lines risking their lives to treat COVID-19 patients.

“There is going to be a shift,” Zinner said. “I think this pandemic is going to burn the system down that we have today. It’s failing — it’s failing the American people in every context, in every state.”

Sheldon, while speaking with The Aegis on Tuesday, touched on Upper Chesapeake Health’s plans to work with the community to find ways to repurpose Harford Memorial after it closes.

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“It will be important for everybody that is involved in that to recognize that’s a development opportunity that we need to collectively capitalize on,” he said.

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