Members of the Maryland Health Care Commission voted Thursday in favor of plans by University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health to consolidate its hospital services in Harford County, despite calls by some elected officials to remove the matter from the commission’s docket in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Upper Chesapeake’s three requests on the agenda included closing Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and converting it into a free-standing medical facility in Aberdeen, building new bed space and increasing the number of beds in Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and building a special psychiatric hospital on the same campus at the free-standing medical center.
All three requests were approved. Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, thanked the commission for its support, noting that health system officials are working to “transform health care in an effective and efficient” manner for the communities UCH serves in Harford County and western Cecil County.
Commission Chairman Dr. Andrew Pollak and Commissioner Casi Boyer both recused themselves from voting on the requests.
Boyer serves as a member of the Havre de Grace City Council. City leaders, members of the community and state legislators who represent the Havre de Grace area have been battling the proposal to close Harford Memorial since UCH announced its plans in early 2016. They have protested the closure of the community hospital and expressed concerns that a free-standing medical center would not have sufficient resources to serve eastern Harford and western Cecil County.
The medical center, as proposed, will have a full-service emergency room and beds for short-stay medical needs, as well as variety of medical imaging, testing, laboratory and therapeutic services. Medical, surgical and other beds meant to serve patients requiring longer hospital stays will be consolidated with beds at the Bel Air hospital, though.
Havre de Grace Mayor William T. Martin sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan last week, asking the governor to issue an executive order stopping the commission from taking action Thursday on Upper Chesapeake Health’s requests.
State Dels. Mary Ann Lisanti and Steve Johnson, whose district includes Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, also sent a letter to MHCC Executive Director asking him to remove the matter from the agenda. All cited the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on health care resources in Maryland.
The legislators stated, in their April 10 letter, that taking action Thursday would be “a blatant disregard for public health and a direct assault on the health and safety of the people we represent” in District 34A. They “respectfully” asked that the commission defer action “until this public emergency is over and we have a better understanding of our community healthcare needs.”
Other appointed and elected leaders in Harford County, such as County Executive Barry Glassman, Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane and county Health Officer Dr. Russell Moy, sent letters to the commission urging it to proceed with the vote Thursday. Dr. Muhammad Jokhadar, president of the medical staff at Upper Chesapeake, also wrote in favor of approving the request.
“While I recognize that it is an extremely turbulent time during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, meeting the current and future health planning needs in Harford County is also important,” Moy stated.
The MHCC staff included, for the commissioners’ approval, an order that Harford Memorial “shall not close” until the medical center and psychiatric hospital are built on the Aberdeen campus off of Route 22. That process is expected to take about two-and-a-half years.
The commissioners and MHCC staff met via webinar Thursday afternoon, and members of the public could hear audio of the proceedings either online or by phone.
The commissioners and staff discussed the requests to delay the vote as they reviewed Upper Chesapeake’s plans. Dr. Gerard S. O’Connor, a commissioner and private-practice surgeon in Chestertown, voted against the free-standing medical facility and psychiatric hospital proposals — he cast the lone dissenting vote both times.
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“We’re in a state, national and world emergency right now, and I don’t think there are any standards for that,” he said, noting the unknown impact COVID-19 could have on health care services.
O’Connor said he thinks there will be “a major paradigm shift in health care,” and that use of telehealth could become much more common. He suggested that the commission “wait and see how everything falls out before we do make a decision.”
Steffen, the executive director, said he has been reviewing where the greatest number of COVID-19 cases have been reported in Maryland and which hospitals have treated the most patients with the disease.
He noted that larger hospitals with more resources to provide the type of treatment needed to beat COVID-19 are in Baltimore and the surrounding area, rather than smaller community hospitals such as those in Harford County. He added that it is more challenging for community hospitals to treat people who are severely or moderately sick with a disease such as COVID-19. There is currently no approved treatment or vaccine for the respiratory disease, which can be fatal and has killed tens of thousands of people in the U.S.
Harford County Council President Patrick Vincenti, who grew up in Havre de Grace, also sent a letter to the commission ahead of its vote. He expressed his support for the order regarding the closure of Harford Memorial.
“Closing this healthcare facility prematurely will have a severe negative impact on all residents of Harford County and [leave] them without critical care,” he stated.