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Dueling state bills would affect Harford medical system's expansion plans, one way or another

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has signed legislation that is expected to accelerate the closing of Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace, which will be replaced with a new medical center at another site in the city.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has signed legislation that is expected to accelerate the closing of Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace, which will be replaced with a new medical center at another site in the city. (Upper Chesapeake Health / Baltimore Sun)

Two competing pieces of state legislation regarding hospital closures and transformation – including the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health's proposal to close Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace and replace it with a new medical center near the I-95/Route 155 interchange – will be the subject of legislative committee hearings in Annapolis next week.

Under House Bill 1350, which is supported by the Maryland Hospital Association and sponsored by Democratic Del. Peter Hammen of Baltimore, health systems such as Upper Chesapeake, which are already established in their communities, could open a "freestanding medical facility" without going through the state's certificate of need approval process, if "the freestanding medical facility is established as the result of the conversion of a licensed general hospital," according to the legislation.

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House Bill 1121, which is also on the March 10 committee agenda, prohibits partial or full closures of a hospital "except under certain circumstances" and requires both local and state review before such a closure could occur.

Both bills will be heard by the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee on March 10, according to the Maryland General Assembly website.

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"HB 1350 provides enabling legislation which supports the transitioning of an acute care hospital to a freestanding medical facility," Upper Chesapeake Health spokesperson Martha Mallonee wrote in an email Wednesday. "We are confident that this modern approach to providing community health care will best serve our community while focusing on providing the right care, in the right place and time while containing costs."

Health systems would still have to file for approval from the state, according to the legislation.

Companion legislation, Senate Bill 707, has been introduced in the state Senate, where Sen. Thomas Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County, is the primary sponsor.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman has expressed his support for the Senate version, according to county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby.

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"We certainly support the [Upper Chesapeake] strategy to improve the health of our population and reduce the need for hospital stays," Mumby said.

The dramatic decrease in the length of hospital stays and the need to let doctors build up expertise on complex procedures are two of the major reasons behind University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health's growth plans, hospital leaders told residents at another community forum Wednesday.

Upper Chesapeake Health officials plan to close Harford Memorial in downtown Havre de Grace and open a new health center on 97 acres owned by Upper Chesapeake near the I-95/Route 155 interchange.

The new health center would have some of the same services offered by Harford Memorial, such as a fully-staffed emergency room, medical testing and imaging, but Upper Chesapeake officials say they want to emphasize inpatient and outpatient behavioral health and space for short-stay observation of patients, rather than long-term stays in the hospital.

Mallonee noted the emergency department on the new medical campus will be 20,000 square feet, more than double the size of the 8,000-square-foot ER at Harford Memorial.

"With appropriate state approval, there will be advanced diagnostic testing to support the needs of our Emergency Department and observation stay patients," Mallonee stated.

Upper Chesapeake Health, which has more than 3,000 employees, is the largest private employer in Harford County, according to Mumby.

Health system officials expect the Havre de Grace medical center, as well as expansions to facilities at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, would be complete by 2020.

"Early indications are that the plan will benefit the City of Havre de Grace and Harford County and the region," Mumby said.

Upper Chesapeake officials hosted two public information sessions in Havre de Grace in February, when they fielded community concerns about the economic impact of Harford Memorial being shuttered downtown, whether patients could get the same services on the new campus and the impact of the move on emergency services in Cecil and Harford counties.

A second meeting is scheduled for April 5 in Perryville at 6 p.m. in the Perryville Fire Hall, 920 Principio Furnace Road. Participants should register online at umuch.org/2020HdGCampus.

More oversight sought

In response to the many community concerns about the plan to close Harford Memorial – concerns that she shares – Harford Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat from Havre de Grace, has lent her support to House Bill 1121.

The proposed hybrid Havre de Grace medical center would have about 100 fewer employees than the workforce at Harford Memorial, and the number of beds would be reduced from 84 to 52, although more beds in the new facility would be reserved for behavioral health patients. Those are concerns for Lisanti.

The primary sponsor of HB-1121 is Democratic Del. Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk, who represents Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Lisanti is one of 53 co-sponsors, and the only delegate from Harford to sign on.

Companion legislation in the Senate, SB-12, is sponsored by Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel and Prince George's, and Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., a Republican who represents the Upper Eastern Shore.

The primary sponsors of both bills represent residents of Kent County and Laurel where community hospital closures are planned. In Kent County, Shore Medical Center in Chestertown is owned by the University of Maryland Health System, as is Harford Memorial.

University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health's first public forum on its plans for a new medical campus drew questions about community security, ambulance coordination and the economic impact to Havre de Grace of a vacant Harford Memorial Hospital, among other topics.

Under the two bills, any proposed hospital closure must be reported to a local board of health at least 90 days before the anticipated closure date, and the board must hold a public hearing within 30 days of receiving notice. State health boards must also be involved in the process, according to the bill. In Harford County, the county council sits as the county board of health.

"I want people to understand the impact on health care is across the board," Lisanti said Tuesday.

While Lisanti says she recognizes Glassman's "sensitivity toward mental health, she disagrees with the county executive's support for the Upper Chesapeake project, noting there will be a loss of jobs and medical services with the "limited-care clinic" that is being proposed as an alternative to Harford Memorial.

She said she wants to work with legislative leaders to "make sure health care needs are provided for."

Mallonee, the Upper Chesapeake spokesperson, said the health system's position on HB-1121 is that "the appropriate place for the review and approval for changes in acute care hospital¹s scope of services should rest with state regulatory bodies sanctioned with this authority. The Board of Health does not have the in-depth knowledge of the state health plan."

"We remain responsible stewards to our patients and their families as well as to the Havre de Grace community," Mallonee said. "We believe our plan addresses our community needs as we know them today with an eye to the future."

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