Many questions, few answers on Harford hospital plan

The Aegis

A glance at the Open Forum letters section in Wednesday’s edition of The Aegis is a good indication that the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health is ramping up the public relations campaign for its planned new medical campus in Aberdeen.

The Harford County based health care organization abruptly made a right turn last April — or left turn depending on the direction officials were facing – and opted to abandon a two-year-old plan to build a so-called freestanding medical center and psychiatric hospital in Havre de Grace’s Bulle Rock neighborhood, a short distance from the I-95/Route 155 interchange.

Instead, the campus plan was transferred to a site in Aberdeen along Route 22, also a relatively short distance from I-95. Aberdeen city officials already have given their blessing to the proposed medical center, changing the city’s zoning to allow it. The medical center will have an emergency room and helicopter landing and takeoff capability – and a planned psychiatric hospital on what is known as the Merritt Property, where there exists a vacant office building erected in some of the base realignment economic development euphoria that never materialized.

Bottom line is, Havre de Grace has essentially been forsaken for what Upper Chesapeake leaders have indicated is a more compliant and hospitable Aberdeen. But, that’s not really so, according to Havre de Grace’s city leaders, who say they never turned their back on Upper Chesapeake’s plan and never stopped trying to work with the organization.

“The requirements are significant enough that UMUCH is now exploring other potential sites outside the city that may be more feasible and favorable for UMUCH and the Harford County community overall,” Upper Chesapeake said in a statement last summer when it indicated it could no longer work with Havre de Grace.

So what is the real story?

Any manifestation of the Upper Chesapeake Plan, which it calls Vision 2020, has at its core not the building of a medical center or a psych hospital, but the closing of the aging Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace. The two new facilities are a substitute for what has been a community institution in Harford County for 106 years and a cornerstone of the Havre de Grace economy.

While we would agree that Harford Memorial is antiquated and by current community health care standards may in fact be obsolete, we have consistently argued that closing this hospital outright and providing what amounts to scaled down services elsewhere may not serve the general community’s best interests in the long run.

It’s clear to us at this juncture that Upper Chesapeake officials acted out of fear that community backlash against closing Harford Memorial would slow their process of getting financing and state regulatory approvals. It’s not the first time the organization has had to deal with those prospects – Harford Memorial was considered for closing in the late 1990s when the new Bel Air hospital was being planned, but Upper Chesapeake’s leadership backed off and instead came up with a successful plan to integrate both facilities.

The Aberdeen plan may appear expedient on the surface and as a viable way around the Harford Memorial issue, but it still doesn’t answer the question: Is this really what the Harford County community needs. A plan that costs $120 million to in effect close an existing hospital, still begs the question about what is being given up in return and what is actually being gained?

For now, it’s all systems go for the Upper Chesapeake Aberdeen Campus. Meanwhile, the 90-acres where a new Havre de Grace medical campus was once going to be built will be ripe for the plucking of some other future development, and the Harford Memorial site in downtown Havre de Grace will await a similar fate.

To us, however, this is hardly the best of all possible worlds for Harford County, and we still question the ultimate motives of Upper Chesapeake.

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