Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, faced a Havre de Grace community Thursday that is deeply concerned about the proposed closure of its community hospital and the construction of a new medical center.
"Just remember that we're a key stakeholder," City Council President David Glenn said.
Sheldon and other top officials with Upper Chesapeake spoke to a crowd of about 75 gathered in a meeting room in the Havre de Grace Library — UCH had announced a "casual open session" on the latest developments in its Vision 2020 plan for transforming health care in Cecil and Harford counties.
Upper Chesapeake Health officials plan to close the aging Harford Memorial Hospital, which has been an anchor in downtown Havre de Grace for more than 100 years, open a free-standing medical center near Bulle Rock and expand Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air by 2020.
The health system filed its letter of intent with the Maryland Health Care Commission in late May, kicking off an intense regulatory process expected to take a year.
The plan to close Harford Memorial, which takes up most of a city block at the intersection of Union Avenue and Revolution Street, has struck a nerve in Havre de Grace.
Some people at the meeting peppered Sheldon with questions as he gave his presentation, and they continued talking among themselves after Sheldon answered their questions — they were loud enough that it disturbed the majority of audience members.
Judy Hinch, of Aberdeen, stood up and admonished those who were making noise while Sheldon was talking.
"Let's all have common politeness, that we learned in kindergarten ... it's okay to have questions but not to be disrespectful to this gentleman, and it's making me mad," she said as the audience applauded.
People had a myriad of concerns about closing Harford Memorial and the new medical center, which will be built on 97 acres the health system owns near the Route 155/I-95 interchange.
Those concerns included increased traffic on Route 155, whether or not the patients admitted to the behavioral health section will be dangerous individuals, how downtown businesses will be affected by the loss of Harford Memorial, as well as the potential loss of the medical services Havre de Grace residents have received for years through the hospital and surrounding medical offices that are within walking distance.
"I want to make sure, in front of everybody in this room, that care will be maintained at this facility [Harford Memorial] until there is a facility operational on the hill," state Del. Mary Ann Lisanti said.
Lisanti, whose district includes Havre de Grace, was a vocal opponent in Annapolis last year when legislation was filed to hasten the process of closing a community hospital and establishing a free-standing medical facility.
Upper Chesapeake Health was among the health care organizations that supported it, and the Maryland General Assembly approved the bill.
"Your license to operate comes from the state, as well as a tremendous amount of funding," Lisanti told Sheldon.
Sheldon stressed that Harford Memorial will not close until the medical center in Bulle Rock and the Bel Air hospital expansion are ready.
"There will not be a break in services until the facilities are adequate in both locations," he said.
The new medical center, which will have a full-service emergency department, outpatient medical care and imaging services and inpatient behavioral health services in one building, will not take up the full 97 acres, Sheldon noted.
He said there is room to expand the facility, if needed, and the remaining acreage could be sold or leased for commercial development.
That idea rankled members of the audience.
"I'm just confused about what retail space is doing at a hospital," Mary Jane Price, of Havre de Grace, said.
Joe Fiocchi, also of Havre de Grace, expressed concern about downtown businesses being "displaced" by new businesses on the medical campus.
"We're having troubling bringing retail into the town as it is, much less a facility as big as a hospital." he said.
Sheldon said Upper Chesapeake is working with the firm Cushman & Wakefield to conduct research on how the hospital could be re-used, and the firm will "actively market the property for consideration for sale."
He stressed that health system officials do not want to leave an empty building downtown.
Rod Kornrumpf, executive director of behavioral health services for UCH and Union Hospital in Elkton, said the inpatient section of the behavioral health portion of medical center will be secured and monitored so the patients will not be a danger to themselves or others.
"As soon as they are in the hospital we are actively treating," he said. "We are making them as safe as we possibly can."
Kornrumpf said inpatient and outpatient services will be offered for mental health and substance abuse issues. People charged with a crime or sex offense will not be treated in Havre de Grace.
Sheldon said the Vision 2020 plan is driven by changes in how health care is delivered around the country, as health systems are shifting to a regional model and stressing more in-home care and prevention services, plus health care costs continue to rise as the quality of Americans' health declines.
"Under the new model that we are seeing play out in a very, very large way, it revolves around prevention, managing care and coordinating care in the right setting," he said.
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The heath system will host another public forum in late August or early September as part of the regulatory process, Sheldon said. He encouraged people to visit http://umuch.org/vision-2020 for more information.