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Upper Chesapeake meeting raises questions on security, ambulance issues, plans for Harford Memorial site

Upper Chesapeake Health President and CEO Lyle Sheldon and medical staff president Angela Poppe-Ries discuss their ideas for the system's new medical campus set to replace Harford Memorial Hospial during a public meeting on the project Monday, Feb. 8. (Bryna Zumer and Dan Griffin, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

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.

In addition to the development of the new medical campus and expected closing of Harford Memorial, the health system plans to add up to 32 medical surgical beds at the hospital on its Upper Chesapeake Medical Center campus in Bel Air.

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At the meeting held at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum on Monday night, Upper Chesapeake Health President and CEO Lyle Sheldon focused on the medical campus set to replace Harford Memorial at Route 155 and I-95.

Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, explains the hospital's growth plans at a community meeting.
Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, explains the hospital's growth plans at a community meeting. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF)

In all, Upper Chesapeake plans to invest about $180 million in Harford County, $62 million on the Bel Air campus and $118 million to develop the new Havre de Grace campus.

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Medical staff president Angela Poppe-Ries discussed the new Havre de Grace medical center's planned focus on preventive care and reassured the roughly 75 attendees that the behavioral health facility will fill an urgent need and will not be similar to Father Martin's Ashley, a private addictions treatment facility located near Havre de Grace.

Havre de Grace City Council President Steve Gamatoria asked the officials to explain more about the outpatient substance abuse services that will be offered.

"I think some of the fear from some of the constituents is, is this a methadone clinic? And I think that's fair to get that out very quickly squashed," he said.

Several people also asked whether patients with mental health issues might be able to target children or the elderly, to which Poppe-Ries asked if anyone has heard of vulnerable residents being targeted by patients from the existing Harford Memorial.

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She said the hospital has considered that possibility but pointed out Harford Memorial has been in a residential neighborhood for decades. Richard Lewis, Upper Chesapeake Director of Psychiatry, also said Harford Memorial already has a 25-bed general psychiatry unit and has many patients with substance abuse disorders.

"We plan to have services that are very similar to what we have now," he said about the proposed medical campus.

Poppe-Ries said unlike a service like Father Martin's Ashley, which does partner with Upper Chesapeake, the behavioral health facility will be a general psychiatry unit, not just focused on substance abuse disorders.

Gamatoria and fellow Havre de Grace Councilman Dave Glenn also wondered about elder care issues.

"Will the same service be offered, for example, if my dad needs to go down to do blood work, a chest X-ray, a sonogram, will those services still be offered at the new facility?" Gamatoria asked, to which Sheldon responded they would.

Sheldon and Poppe-Ries also said they do not want Harford Memorial to sit vacant and are not necessarily expecting the many medical offices in downtown Havre de Grace to relocate.

The Maryland Hospital Association is seeking state legislation that would help University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health build its proposed stand alone medical facility in Havre de Grace.

Edna Hirsch, a former Havre de Grace resident, said she has seen hospitals in Baltimore, for example, that have remained in the same place and simply been renovated.

"This is, like, the heart of Havre de Grace and, in a way, it's like taking the heart of Havre de Grace and transplanting it to your knee, so my hope would be that if you go forward with this, the [Harford Memorial site] doesn't become a big, empty building in the middle of Havre de Grace," Hirsch said of the project.

Sheldon replied Upper Chesapeake analyzed the possibility of expanding on site, but part of the reason for the move was visibility,

"Quite frankly, because of its lack of visibility, we felt it was much better to start with a greenfield location," Sheldon said about Harford Memorial.

The universal sentiment from architects and consultants "was we were better off starting with a greenfield than trying to renovate," he said.

Although other hospitals have renovated in place, moving "would give us much greater flexibility and allows us to build something special," Sheldon said.

He added he does not want Harford Memorial to be an eyesore and plans to work with city, county and state officials on the site.

Tom Fidler, representing Mackenzie Commercial Real Estate Services, also reassured the crowd that the retail and commercial uses planned for the site in the future would not include a big-box store or strip mall.

"There is no deal with Walmart," he said. With the economy, "we are literally living month to month, day to day, keeping a finger on the pulse, if you will, of what the market wants."

"Our long-term vision is to build something we can be proud of. We all live here as well," Fidler said.

May Kuroiwa said she just bought the 75-year-old, historic Drennen house downtown because she is in walking distance to amenities like the hospital, post office and library.

"Havre de Grace is a very special place to live," she said. "Frankly, the loss of a hospital is going to be a check mark in the negative category. For us, we are very concerned about the old facility here."

Sheldon said he will make sure to work with city leaders on a plan for the building and already has an advisor to understand what the options are for the building.

"We recognize it's a prime piece of real estate that we want to make sure is properly used," he said.

Donald Mulligan, who lives in the Paddocks in Bulle Rock, raised a concern about "a very active gun range" near his property that he said the police cannot handle because it is outside city limits.

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.

"It might be an issue for people who are out wandering the trails and hear all this gunfire," he suggested.

Jeffrey Hennemetch, deputy chief of Water Witch Volunteer Fire Company in Port Deposit, wondered about transportation, explaining there have been issues with transporting critically ill patients to stand alone emergency rooms.

Sheldon did say earlier that the medical campus would have emergency services, including a helipad on the north end of the property.

Although he has been asked about whether the new center would be a shock trauma center, Sheldon said that would not be feasible as it only takes 14 minutes for a helicopter to reach Baltimore's shock trauma.

On Tuesday, Wayne Tome, mayor of Port Deposit and a longtime firefighter, said in a phone interview the new closing of Harford Memorial and construction of an alternative could "significantly affect EMS."

He said he heard the hospital is already planning to close its intensive care unit or emergency room because of problems filling critical-care nursing positions and doctor positions.

"Slowly they have been gutting the services at the hospital," Tome said, adding that if volunteer emergency medical technicians are forced to go to Bel Air or Elkton, transport times could be stretched by at least half an hour.

Port Deposit and the Water Witch Fire Company went to Harford Memorial about 430 times last year, he said, and about 100 times to Union Hospital.

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Perryville has already had to hire a driver, while Water Witch remains completely volunteer-based, he said.

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"We are already struggling with volunteers now," Tome said. "If you don't have an in-house hospital, you can't really have a standalone ER."

Tome also said Sheldon and the hospital officials only recently contacted him and never made contact with any fire companies in Cecil County.

"It seems like it was kept from the public," he said. "County medics are not going to be as available, the ambulances are not going to be as available."

Another public meeting on Upper Chesapeake's plans is set for 6 p.m. on Feb. 24 at the Bulle Rock Golf Course Clubhouse at 320 Blenheim Farm Lane in Havre de Grace.

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