University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s original plan to close Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace and open a free-standing medical center near the Route 155/Interstate 95 interchange has encountered strong opposition from residents and city officials since it was announced nearly three years ago.
The project involves closing the aging Harford Memorial Hospital, building the free-standing medical center that has expanded services for behavioral health patients, and building up Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air with more beds for medical and surgical patients. The original proposal placed the new medical center on property the health system owns near the Bulle Rock community and the Interstate 95/Route 155 interchange in Havre de Grace, but now Aberdeen is the proposed home for the center.
The adjusted plan — which still calls for closing Harford Memorial, but building the medical center around an unoccupied office building off of Route 22 in Aberdeen — has had a much better reception in Aberdeen, even drawing applause from the crowd after a roughly 90-minute presentation last week.
Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, cited the “Your Health. Our Mission” tagline for the project, billed as Vision 2020 when it was announced in January 2016.
Sheldon said the project, which must still be approved by the state, is more than just new and expanded buildings and making the transition from Harford Memorial to the new medical center.
“It’s really that continued focus around the patient experience, patient safety, patient quality and patient access,” Sheldon said.
About 80 people from the community attended the public information session Thursday evening at the Aberdeen Fire Department’s main firehouse on North Rogers Street. There were about 20 more invited guests, according to health system spokesperson Martha Mallonee.
Those present from Upper Chesapeake Health, or UCH, included members of the medical staff, health system administrators and board members. The UCH Board of Directors has voted unanimously to proceed with developing the medical center in Aberdeen, which will be in Merritt Properties Aberdeen Corporate Park off of Route 22, just west of the intersection with Middleton Road. Sheldon and other UCH officials noted the recently completed widening of Route 22, which they said helps their project.
An existing, unoccupied, 95,250-square-foot office building would become a medical office building, and a new building covering about 120,000 square feet would be constructed behind it. The campus would have a helipad for emergency transfers of patients to other hospitals, and a new right-in, right-out entrance along Route 22.
That would give drivers two points of entry and exit to the campus, including existing access via Middleton Road to McHenry Road, which leads to the entrance to the corporate campus.
Sheldon said having only one access point from McHenry Road is “really not practical,” noting the Bel Air hospital had one point of access when it opened in 2000. The campus at Route 24 and West MacPhail Road has two entrance and exit points today.
The Aberdeen campus, which is about 36 acres, has space for the medical center to add new facilities and parking areas beyond what is planned if needed, according to Sheldon.
The Aberdeen Planning Commission approved a preliminary site plan during a meeting in October; some members of the public did express concerns at that meeting about additional vehicle traffic being generated, how noise from helicopters would affect nearby residents on Graceford Drive, the potential strain on city services and whether they could get the same services in Aberdeen as patients receive at Harford Memorial Hospital.
Upper Chesapeake Health filed its application with the Maryland Health Care Commission in November to establish the freestanding medical center and special psychiatric hospital/behavioral health center in Aberdeen.
Health system officials project they will receive state approval in the spring, and then they can proceed with construction at Aberdeen and in Bel Air — the Bel Air hospital project involves building three stories on top of the Kaufman Cancer Center to expand the number of medical and surgical beds.
Construction is expected to take about two years for both campuses, with a targeted opening happening in the summer of 2021.
Sheldon said the schedule is contingent upon getting state approvals.
“With the property that we have here in Aberdeen almost all the infrastructure is in place” Sheldon said. “The road is in place, so it allows for a faster construction project.”
Aberdeen campus features
The Upper Chesapeake chief explained that the Aberdeen medical center will include a full-service, round-the-clock emergency department, about four times the size as that of its equivalent at Harford Memorial. The emergency department will have supporting diagnostic and treatment services, as well as a laboratory and imaging center.
Sheldon said there will be “a variety of traditional outpatient services that [patients] historically were able to receive at Harford Memorial Hospital.”
There will also be “short-stay” beds for medical patients who cannot be discharged from the emergency room but are not sick enough for long-term, three- to four-day stays in the hospital.
Sheldon reiterated what other Upper Chesapeake officials have said in the past — that people suffering emergencies such as a stroke will receive the same type of care at the free-standing medical center that they can expect now at Harford Memorial.
“We have all the medical staff support, we have all of the testing at Harford Memorial Hospital today that we plan on transitioning to this location,” he said.
A stroke patient who needs care beyond what is available at Aberdeen can be transported to the Bel Air hospital, Sheldon said, and UCH will bear that transportation cost.
The same message has been relayed to MIEMSS, or the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, which coordinates and oversees the emergency services system in Maryland. Sheldon said MIEMSS had given its approval.
Behavioral health services
The larger building on the Aberdeen campus will have a behavioral health pavilion in addition to the emergency department. The two sections will have separate patient treatment areas, which Sheldon said “helps keeps the flow of the more traditional acute care patients moving through the emergency department.”
There will be inpatient beds for behavioral health patients, part of a secured treatment system for patients with mental health needs that has been at Harford Memorial for 25 years and will be transferred to Aberdeen, according to Sheldon.
The push to develop the behavioral health center coincides with Upper Chesapeake’s partnership to develop a crisis center in Bel Air to serve people with mental health and addiction issues. The health system is partnering with the Harford County Health Department, the county government, Ashley Addiction Treatment, Healthy Harford, Healthy Cecil, the Affiliated Santé Group, the Office on Mental Health and Core Service Agency of Harford County Inc.
A 24-hour crisis hotline, 800-NEXT-STEP, or 800-639-8783, went live in October, and Harford County’s established Mobile Crisis Team is available to respond to people in crisis at their home or in the community.
The Harford Crisis Center is being developed at 802 Baltimore Pike in Bel Air — Sheldon noted it is in a former bowling alley — and the location is expected to house an outpatient mental health clinic open Monday through Friday, a walk-in service center open 24/7 and an inpatient facility with eight beds, all scheduled to open early next year.
Dr. Richard Lewis, chair of UCH’s psychiatry department, said the crisis center services give people “one point of entry” to the local mental health care system, so patients and providers have an easier time navigating it.
Lewis said the center developed out of discussions among people in the field about how to tackle Harford’s growing opioid addiction crisis and “a long-neglected behavioral health issue in our county.”
“Our system had a lot of components, a lot of good people doing good work, but it was rather fragmented, siloed, not well orchestrated,” he said.
Sheldon said that once officials have a better idea of when they can build and set move-in dates for the Aberdeen and Bel Air campuses, they can make decisions on the disposition of Harford Memorial and begin shifting the roughly 800 employees there to other jobs — either at Aberdeen or another location in UCH or University of Maryland Medical System.
Upper Chesapeake Health is the largest private employer in Harford County, with about 3,200 employees. Sheldon presented a chart showing the Harford Memorial workforce is drawn from Aberdeen, Havre de Grace, Cecil County and even Delaware.
Health system officials plan to start a “job mapping” process for employees about 18 months before the expected transition date to the new facilities, according to Sheldon.
“We’re a very, very big proponent of career development and career ladders,” he said.
Sheldon said UCH has been working with the real estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield on the disposition of Harford Memorial, which is on a six-acre property along Union Avenue in downtown Havre de Grace.
He acknowledged the “rich history” of the hospital, which has been in the city for 100 years, but he said it is “well beyond its useful life,” and patients, their families, employees and the community “certainly expect different [medical] facilities than what we have there today.”
The health system plans to sell the property, but it will work with Cushman and Wakefield and city leaders to ensure a future developer reuses the site in a way that “will bring sustainable community benefit, also make financial sense and doing it at the same time when we transition to this [Aberdeen] facility so that there is not a break in service,” Sheldon said.
He said the plan to develop the medical center in Aberdeen has the full support of UCH’s board, as well as its medical staff and management team.
“We’re very, very enthused,” said Dr. Jason Birnbaum, a board member chairman of the department of medicine and physician director of the intensive care unit. “We’re fully supportive of this, and it’s something that we’ve been looking forward to for some time now.”
Birnbaum said he works with patients with respiratory ailments, from asthma to lung cancer, in an outpatient setting and also with patients in the intensive care unit who are on life support, ventilators or dialysis machines.
“The better that I do, providing care up front to my patients with lung disease, the less likely they are to end up in the ICU requiring very high tech, expensive and limited resources,” he said.
Birnbaum cited four types of patients seen on a regular basis at the Upper Chesapeake emergency rooms, including a 60-year-old man with a sudden onset of slurred speech — a potential symptom of a stroke — a 27-year-old woman suffering from a suspected overdose and who is suspected of attempting suicide; a 54-year-old woman who needs help managing her type-II diabetes; and an 8-year-old girl with chronic asthma who is suffering from a breathing emergency and is suspected of having the flu.
He said all of those patients would receive the same level of care at the Aberdeen ER that they can get now at Harford Memorial or the Bel Air hospital.
“No matter what time of the day it is, you want immediate, prompt, appropriate care,” Birnbaum said.
A panel of UCH doctors and administrators spent about 20 minutes answering audience questions Thursday, and spectators applauded at the end of the presentation.
In an interview after the session, Sheldon said, regarding the property UCH owns near Bulle Rock and the initial site for the medical center, that the health system’s priorities now involve getting state approvals, making the transition from Harford Memorial, and opening its Aberdeen and Bel Air campuses.
“Our priority is to get this project moving along,” he said.
‘Large portion of our working lives’
Audience members Joan and Michael Palmer, of Abingdon, are both retired from Harford Memorial Hospital.
Michael, who worked in materials management, spent 45 years with UCH and retired in 2014. Joan, a former registered nurse, spent 40 years at Harford Memorial and retired in 2011.
She said she and her husband receive notices about public meetings on the hospital project.
“It’s nice to know we’re going to have new facilities and up-to-date health information,” Joan Palmer said.
Michael Palmer said he is sorry to see Harford Memorial close.
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“I hate to see it go, but time marches on and you’ve got to make changes,” he said. “It was a good place to work, though.”