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Not so fast on Harford hospital plans [Editorial]

Harford Memorial Hospital will be closed under a plan by University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health to construct a new medical center elsewhere in the city and to increase the number of beds at its hospital in Bel Air. Public meetings on the plan will be held this Monday, Feb. 8, and on Feb. 24 in Havre de Grace.
Harford Memorial Hospital will be closed under a plan by University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health to construct a new medical center elsewhere in the city and to increase the number of beds at its hospital in Bel Air. Public meetings on the plan will be held this Monday, Feb. 8, and on Feb. 24 in Havre de Grace. (TED HENDRICKS | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

It's a bit early in the process for taking a firm stance, one way or another, on the proposal that would dramatically change health care in Harford County.

For those lost in last week's blizzard, here's what's on the table: University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health has proposed spending $60 million to add three floors to part of its medical center in Bel Air. In Havre de Grace, Upper Chesapeake has proposed spending about $116 million for a new medical center near the I-95 exit. Once that's complete, the more than 100-year history of Havre de Grace having a hospital will end. Harford Memorial Hospital, long a fixture on Union Avenue, will cease operations.

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For those living in the greater Bel Air area, there's nothing to worry about. The Bel Air hospital will either have what it has, if the proposal fails, or have tens of millions of dollars of improvements, if it's approved.

The issue is more complicated for the Havre de Grace community. If the proposal fails, the community will have the same hospital it has, but for how long? That hospital, Harford Memorial, is an aging facility that's landlocked with uncertain prospects for any improvements in that location. That's the part that has fomented initial uncertainty, if not opposition, to the plan. Rather than focusing too much on what happens when downtown Havre de Grace, for the first time in more than a century, no longer has a full service hospital, the community should instead look at the overall plan.

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The heart of the matter is the proposal calls for spending $116 million to build a new medical center in Havre de Grace, which would doom Harford Memorial, but bring continued emergency medical services as well as new services. Not many outfits are coming along with offers to spend that much in Havre de Grace, which would also preserve hundreds of jobs.

The greater Havre de Grace community, particularly the places that rely on Harford Memorial for its hospital care, needs to answer with some certainty whether the new facility would be enough of an upgrade over Harford Memorial.

One of the best ways to do that is to not only attend one of the two community input meetings scheduled in Havre de Grace on Feb. 8 and 24, but also to get informed about the project and ask intelligent, pointed questions of hospital officials.

Changes in health care philosophy and technology are making parts of what is done at Harford Memorial more irrelevant each day. State regulators, who will have more of a say about the hospital care in Maryland than many people realize, don't look favorably on facilities such as Harford Memorial. Those state officials have a world view that health care facilities nearing the end of their useful lives don't necessarily need to be replaced.

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How long Harford Memorial could continue functioning as it has is a question without a clear answer.

What is clear is the future of the hospital in Havre de Grace is uncertain at best and not very promising at its worst.

We have plenty of legitimate concerns and worries about the project, as should everyone who lives in the greater Havre de Grace area and the greater Harford Memorial Hospital community.

There will be plenty of time for advocating for the plan, or fighting its approval. Now is the time for finding out what it's all about and how these changes will affect the community's loved ones.

So instead of drawing lines in the sand, how about drawing up questions that address some of the concerns and fears about the changes being proffered and asking them of the people in charge who can best answer them. Then, make informed decisions about whether it sounds like a good thing for Havre de Grace and adopt informed positions.

Monday night starts the process. Be there.

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