Numerous laws enacted by the Maryland General Assembly last winter take effect Friday, including some specific to Harford County and one statewide measure expected to have an immediate impact locally.
Senate Bill 707 permits hospital operators to convert or replace an existing hospital with a free-standing medical center without having to reapply and be reviewed through the state's often weighty and time-consuming certificate of need licensing process.
University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, which operates Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, plans to close Harford Memorial and build a new medical center near I-95 and Route 155 in the city.
The new facility will have a fully-staffed emergency room, ambulatory care services and a secure behavioral care inpatient unit. The medical/surgical services operating at Harford Memorial will be transferred to the Bel Air hospital, which will be expanded.
The Maryland Hospital Association, which represents hospital owners, and Upper Chesapeake officials pushed hard for the legislation, encountering some opposition in Harford County and elsewhere out of concerns that the change will facilitate the closing of unprofitable community-based hospitals.
Under the new law, hospital operators do not have to obtain a certificate of need from the state to build a free-standing facility, if they notify the Maryland Health Care Commission, which licenses hospitals, at least 45 days before the scope of local services is changed. The hospital owner also will be required to hold public information meetings on proposed changes, if they will happen in a county that has fewer than three hospitals – such as Harford.
The hospital owner also will be required to provide details to state officials about the reasons for a proposed closure, or conversion of a community hospital, how the transition of "acute care services," such as treatment of major illnesses or injuries, outside the hospital's former service area will be handled, as well as the continued service of the health care needs of the surrounding community.
Details also must be furnished about how "displaced employees" will be retrained and reassigned and how the health system will take care of the former hospital's physical site. Havre de Grace city officials and others in the community have expressed concerns about what will happen to Harford Memorial's downtown site, which Upper Chesapeake officials have said is under study.
Alcoholic beverage laws
Changes to Harford County alcoholic beverage laws taking effect Friday will allow the operators of movie theaters in the county to sell beer, wine and liquor to their patrons and allow the sale of beer and wine at on-campus community events at Harford Community College, excluding college athletic events.
A third new law, passed as House Bill 969, allows the county Liquor Control Board to issue a license to sell alcoholic beverages to an establishment that is at least 300 feet from a public or private school.
Previously, the establishment had to be at least 1,000 feet from a school, unless it is within the municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace. Sponsors said the change would bring more consistency to the statute countywide.
Other statewide laws
Maryland's minimum wage will rise from $8.25 to $8.75. It's the latest bump scheduled to take effect since lawmakers in 2014 approved increases over several years from $7.25. It is scheduled to go up to $9.25 next year and reach $10.10 in July 2018.
The state's gas tax will rise nine-tenths of a cent to 33.5 cents. Lawmakers approved several increases in 2013, with regular hikes to adjust for inflation. The state's gas tax has gone up a dime since 2013, when lawmakers approved the first increase in 20 years from 23.5 cents.
A ban on powdered alcohol in the state will be extended two years until June 30, 2018.
Funding to the state's land preservation program known as Program Open Space will be restored. The law, already signed by the governor, will return $60 million over the next two years.
Maryland will have a new scoring system to prioritize transportation projects. It's the result of a battle between the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled legislature over transportation funding. While the governor won't be prevented from funding a project with a lower score than another, an explanation would be required for the decision.
Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode the veto in April, shortly before adjourning.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.