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Health system leaders explain need to move specialty services to Bel Air site, close Harford Memorial Hospital

An audience member looks over a drawing of the proposed University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center - Havre de Grace during Wednesday night's community meeting at the Bulle Rock Golf Course clubhouse.
An audience member looks over a drawing of the proposed University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center - Havre de Grace during Wednesday night's community meeting at the Bulle Rock Golf Course clubhouse. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

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 in Havre de Grace Wednesday evening.

"As we look out across the country, and certainly in the state of Maryland, we still think that 20 to 25 percent of the individuals in a hospital setting today could be treated on an outpatient basis," Upper Chesapeake President and CEO Lyle Sheldon said.

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Upper Chesapeake's second community forum on its $180 million growth plan, which includes building a new medical campus near I-95 and Route 155 in Havre de Grace and expanding its Bel Air campus, drew about 90 people to the Bulle Rock Golf Club clubhouse, despite the severe rainstorms that passed through the region and caused local flooding.

The Upper Chesapeake plan also would lead to the closure of Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace, which would be replaced by a hybrid medical center at the new campus, offering emergency medical services and short stay treatment, plus a secure behavioral health unit. The medical surgical services currently provided at Harford Memorial would be shifted to Bel Air.

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The need to have physicians be able to practice procedures regularly, without which "we are not going to have the absolute best outcomes," is a major reason hospital officials wanted to move more specialty services to the Bel Air campus, which is home to Upper Chesapeake's main hospital, medical staff president Angela Poppe-Ries said.

University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health plans to open by 2020 a new medical center in Havre de Grace and expand its Bel Air hospital, an ambitious $180 million proposal that its president and CEO calls "transformational" for Harford and Cecil counties.

"How do we, as a health system, help our county stay healthy so we are not dealing with complications from illnesses that could have been prevented?" Poppe-Ries, who focuses on preventative care, also asked.

Sheldon also reassured the audience that Upper Chesapeake does not intend to let the Harford Memorial Hospital site "turn into a blight," adding: "We have historically been very good stewards of health care."

Harford Memorial is served by two bus lines, and Upper Chesapeake leaders are talking with Harford Transit about a long-range transit plan to ensure public transportation remains available to the new facility, Sheldon said.

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With the new medical campus' focus on behavioral health also being questioned, Sheldon explained: "We will not be treating patients that are incarcerated individuals by law enforcement; we will not be treating individuals that are sex offenders."

He noted behavioral health is one of the top three health issues Harford County has identified as needing to be addressed.

Carolyn Zinner, a Bulle Rock resident, wondered about the reduced number of acute-care beds planned for the new campus and said she has enjoyed having a hospital very close by, as her relatives have used almost every part of Harford Memorial Hospital at some point.

Lyle Sheldon, CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, talks about the history of the existing Harford Memorial Hospital during a community meeting in Havre de Grace Wednesday evening. The medical system wants to close Harford Memorial Hospital and replace it with a new, limited service medical center to be built on the north side of the city.
Lyle Sheldon, CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, talks about the history of the existing Harford Memorial Hospital during a community meeting in Havre de Grace Wednesday evening. The medical system wants to close Harford Memorial Hospital and replace it with a new, limited service medical center to be built on the north side of the city. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

"I know you could say to me, 'Oh, it's going to be available at Upper Chesapeake [in Bel Air],' but I don't want to be in a situation where I have to drive 30 minutes or more to Bel Air," Zinner said about trying to take advantage of specialty services.

Poppe-Ries very few sub-specialties are left at Harford Memorial, because of the financial and operational strains on adequately serving the facility.

"It's hard to staff two hospitals with the care we absolutely feel you deserve," she said. "Unfortunately, to maintain a level of clinical expertise to treat complex patients, acute care needs to be regionalized."

Poppe-Ries said the hospital system encountered controversy when obstetrics was moved from Harford Memorial to when the Bel Air hospital opened about 15 years ago.

The first year of the move, the new Bel Air hospital had about 1,300 deliveries, more than double the roughly 600 per year that had been occurring at Harford Memorial, she said.

Gerry Flinton, of Bulle Rock, wondered about emergency care, as he had a stroke in 2013 and said he got "excellent care" at Harford Memorial. He was told stroke certification would still be maintained at the new Havre de Grace facility.

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.

Flinton also asked about funding infrastructure, namely water, on the new site. Sheldon said the property does not currently have water and sewer services, but Upper Chesapeake will extend lines and build a water tower and sewer pumping station. The 97-acre property off Bulle Rock Parkway was annexed by the City of Havre de Grace several years ago.

Havre de Grace City Councilman Dave Glenn said he is concerned about the city's many elderly residents needing to be transported twice, with Bel Air as the main destination, and how ambulance services might play out for people on fixed incomes.

"We are trying to figure out how to minimize the expense," Sheldon replied, but added that the hospital system is legally required to charge the patient after an ambulance ride.

Dale Clark, captain of the Havre de Grace Ambulance Corps, said medical first responders transport to the closest available facility based on the patient's needs, which still could mean the Bel Air campus, regardless of services available in Havre de Grace now or in the future.

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