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Politicians, residents call for Laurel Regional Hospital to stay put

Politicians, residents call for Laurel Regional Hospital to stay put
Dimensions Heathcare System plans to close Laurel Regional Hospital and replace it with an outpatient facility. (Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

City, county and state officials representing Laurel pledged to push back against plans to convert Laurel Regional Hospital to an ambulatory care center at a forum attended by more than 100 people Monday evening.

The board of Dimensions Healthcare, which runs the hospital, announced the decision July 31. The hospital has struggled to remain profitable in recent years, prompting a consultant to recommend major changes.

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The board's plan is to build a new, $24 million outpatient facility for Laurel that would continue to provide emergency and diagnostic services as well as outpatient surgery. The number of beds in the facility would be downsized to 30.

The announcement has been met with backlash from local politicians and community members, many of whom believe that Laurel, with its placement at the junction of Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and a population of 25,000 people, would suffer without a full-service hospital.

"We need something close by," said Laurel resident Nancy Becraft.

"The Laurel hospital fills a vital need of residents in this area," said another local resident, Audrey Binder. "A lot of elderly residents depend on this hospital."

Bill Williams, who lives in Laurel, noted that the hospital's reach extends beyond his community.

"Laurel's service area is not just Prince George's County - it serves four counties [Prince George's, Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery] and citizens from all four counties use and need this service system," he said.

The Laurel region is slated for big growth in the next several years, with major developments such as Konterra, Laurel Park Station and Maple Lawn - which together will bring thousands of new residents to the area - in the works.

"This is a quality of life issue, and it's a major issue that needs to be [addressed] right now," said Stu Kohn, the president of the Howard County Citizens Association and a Scaggsville resident.

Residents and politicians alike were critical of Dimensions' leadership of the hospital.

"I don't think they've done a very good job over the years," said Laurel Mayor Craig Moe. "It's time for Dimensions to move on."

Moe speculated that the decision to downsize Laurel might be related to plans for a new, $650 million regional medical center to be built in Largo. Prince George's County is partnering with Dimensions Healthcare and the University of Maryland Medical System on the project, which is expected to open in early 2018.

"They don't want any competition for the new system - they want that money to stay within the system," Moe said. "I'm all for a regional medical center, but not at the cost of losing [Laurel Regional Hospital]."

Dimensions representatives were not present at Monday night's meeting. Moe said he had not reached out to invite them specifically.

Tuesday, Dimensions Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations Erika Murray said the decision to make Laurel Regional Hospital an ambulatory care facility "did not have any bearing on our plans for a proposed regional medical center for Largo."

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"We appreciate the concerns of the community; we also appreciate the concerns of the mayor and the City of Laurel Council," Murray said. "We have reached out to the mayor and the council to discuss their concerns."

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who represents Laurel in District 21, said he was "shocked" by the decision to close Laurel Regional.

"Until I see a plan forward that makes sense, I'm not prepared to support any additional state aid for this system," he said.

State Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, of District 23, said officials should also consider the economic impact of closing the hospital.

"If we want to continue to have a vibrant community, we need to have places here in Prince George's County where our children can be born and raised," he said.

Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, another District 21 delegation member, said state law should specify a procedure to go through before a hospital can be closed.

"If there is no process, then we need to put in a process so that this doesn't happen anywhere else," she said.

City Councilmember Fred Smalls, who sits on the Dimensions board, said he had tried to advocate for more transparency in the board's decision-making process. Smalls voted against closing the hospital.

"I've attempted to make it clear to leadership that this kind of involvement, participation and information sharing is critical," Smalls said. "Decisions that are made in a board room without the public's opinion result in what we're now seeing."

Smalls, who also made a presentation about the decision at the beginning of the forum, said the hospital was plagued by a low volume of patients, high overhead costs and an aging infrastructure.

Murray, the Dimensions vice president of marketing and communications, said Tuesday the transition was a "bold" and "innovative" response to those challenges. She also said the transition is in line with changing attitudes at the state level that incentivize preventive and outpatient care over hospitalization.

"The health care industry is changing [and] the state is encouraging care that is being provided outside of the hospital," Murray said. "We want to keep people out of the hospital, we want to keep them healthy, we want to keep them well."

"We think once the community understands what they're getting, they will be excited about it," she added.

City councilmembers Ed Ricks and Donna Crary, meanwhile, said they would fight to keep Laurel Regional a full-service facility.

"I think Dimensions, the county and the government [are] mistaken if they think this body is just going to roll over for them," Crary said. "This is just the beginning… because we're going to fight."

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