Politicians, workers question decision to close Laurel Regional Hospital

"Many are scrambling to find new jobs, wondering how they will proceed to pay the bills and take care of their

Local elected officials joined forces with hospital workers Tuesday morning in an outdoor press conference across the street from Laurel Regional Hospital to spread the word about the impact of Dimensions Healthcare Systems' decision to close and replace Laurel Regional with a $24 million ambulatory care center by 2018.

Dimensions recently announced the hospital's maternal and child health unit would close Oct. 11, eliminating 32 labor and delivery nurse position and six service and maintenance workers.

1199SEIU Vice President Jennifer Epps said the United Healthcare Workers East union represents roughly half of the 600-plus workers at Laurel Regional, who are now left worrying about their futures.

"Many are scrambling to find new jobs, wondering how they will proceed to pay the bills and take care of their families," Epps said. "Even though Dimension claims Laurel workers may find jobs somewhere else in the system, it's becoming clear to us that only a very small handful of vacant positions exist."

Epps said that healthcare workers aren't only worrying about themselves. They're also concerned for the community. Without Laurel Regional in its place, Epps said northern Prince George's County will no longer receive "quick access to comprehensive healthcare."

"We all know that this is a growing community and there are more cars on the road than ever before," she said. "We've all fought traffic on the highways and back streets. At the wrong time of the day, it could take up to an hour to drive from Laurel to one of the nearest hospitals. In an emergency situation, this could be the difference between life and death."

Epps also said Dimensions' "unnecessarily reckless" plan to close the maternity ward will require emergency room nurses to care for expectant mothers, despite their limited expertise in that area.

"[Emergency room nurses] are being required to take a crash course in treating pregnant women and delivering babies," Epps said. "This is unacceptable for everyone."

Dimensions Healthcare System spokeswoman Erika Murray said the plans for the hospital will phase out a majority of licensed medical and surgical inpatient beds later in the year, while retaining behavioral health, rehabilitation and chronic care beds until the new facility is built.

"Critics of our plan to evolve Laurel Regional Hospital may be well meaning in their opposition, but they are advocating a policy approach to healthcare delivery that is increasingly out of date," Murray said in a statement. "Our plan will maximize our ability to improve the health of the community and create a healthcare delivery model that is financially sustainable."

Murray said the ambulatory facility will include emergency services, outpatient surgery and comprehensive diagnostic imaging that is currently available at the hospital.

Outside Laurel Regional on Tuesday, Maryland state Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk and state Sen. Jim Rosapepe described the decision as one of descent and tragedy.

"This was done, literally, under the cover of night, like a thief; no notice," Peña-Melnyk said. "Why was it done so quickly?"

"The fact of the matter is that the purpose of the Affordable Care Act had been to expand access to healthcare, to help people keep healthy and when they're sick and they're broken, to help them recover and to fix them," Rosapepe added. "That requires more access, not less access."

In emergency situations, labor and delivery nurse Margaret Flannery told those gathered, there are times when nurses only have 20 to 30 minutes to deliver babies before quality of life may be lost.

"If you delay them by bringing them here and then stabilizing them and trying to transfer them, that's the beginning of somebody's life that you've just jeopardized," Flannery said. "We've had two instances where we would've lost that baby recently and we would've lost a set of twins. We need this unit."

Flannery said she was devastated to learn the ward was shutting down; the same ward she opened in 1989.

"Twenty-six years ago, this facility opened for labor and delivery and it has been an extremely important unit to this facility and for this community," Flannery said. "I think the way they're closing this unit so rapidly is a disservice to the community as well as to the staff. I'm really concerned about those patients coming in."

Perioperative registered nurse Christiana James said she's been with Laurel Regional for 35 years.

"I raised all my kids [working] there," James said, teary-eyed. "Because of this hospital, my kids went to college. My daughter went to NYU. Without this hospital, she wouldn't have gone. It makes me sad."

Under Dimensions Healthcare System, Laurel Regional maintenance engineer Lionel Chapman said the leadership is "constantly trying to teach us to be the healthcare of choice."

"When we hear the outside media bashing Dimensions, it's a shock because it doesn't feel like that from the inside," Chapman said. "When we did hear this, it was something hard to swallow … At this point, we would like to know why the board members came up with this decision."

In his remarks, Laurel City Mayor Craig Moe said Dimensions has failed its mission to Prince George's County residents.

"Respect, dignity, privacy, excellent service, personal accountability, highest quality of work, promotes open communication, innovation, [and] highest standard," Moe said. "Those are the words and phrases from the Dimensions Healthcare System's values statement. All of these have been forgotten when making a major decision that affects the lives, health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Laurel and northern Prince George's County."

In the 40 years that Paula Adams has lived in Laurel, she has been a patient 10 different times at Laurel Regional Hospital. Adams most recent injury happened as she was grocery shopping at the Laurel Safeway, where she suffered a severe concussion.

"The isle [slanted] down," Adams said Tuesday. "I was pushing the cart, it got away from me and I went to grab it. Over I went. I always fall on my head. I was a mess."

A man nearby saw Adams fall and quickly ran over to help her.

"He put me in my car, he put my groceries in the trunk and he called the rescue squad," she said. "They came immediately. They brought me to [Laurel Regional] and took me immediately to the emergency room."

This "responsive, good care" has left Adams' confused after she heard about Dimensions' plans for Laurel Regional Hospital. With a smaller facility, the new center will allow for only 30 inpatient beds and limited hospital services.

"I had been wondering how it was going to impact my doctors," Adams said. "It kind of snowballs."

Before leaving the staff and care of Laurel Regional after her latest visit, Adams said she remembered laying in her bed, looking out the window and watching as cars drove in and out of her neighborhood in Mayfield Terrace.

"I was just so grateful that we have wonderful people in this area who rally to help you," Adams said. "I find good spirit and, most importantly, good care. It's a real comfort to me just having [Laurel Regional] there."

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