Despite assurances, new ordinance, Havre de Grace residents remain concerned about hospital closing

Concerns about the future of local health care remain among Havre de Grace residents as the state reviews the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s plans to close their city’s Harford Memorial Hospital and replace it with a medical center that some residents fear would offer significantly fewer services.

The City of Havre de Grace has responded to some of those concerns with Ordinance 996, a series of proposed changes to the section of its zoning code which include a requirement that Upper Chesapeake Health’s proposed free-standing medical facility near Bulle Rock be designed and built in a manner that it can be converted to a general hospital in the future.

The ordinance was the subject of a public hearing before the Mayor and City Council on Jan. 16. A second public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 5 at 7 p.m.

“We put this [ordinance] in place because we felt like we owed it to the residents,” City Council President David Glenn said. “They had addressed numerous concerns time and time again in many of the public hearings.”

Glenn proposed setting up the second public hearing date to give people who could not come out to the first another chance to speak. Five people, including UCH President and CEO Lyle Sheldon and three people who live in the vicinity of the site of the new medical center, spoke at the first hearing.

No council members objected to holding a second hearing.

Sheldon said UCH leaders are “generally comfortable with and supportive of” the proposed changes in the city ordinance. He offered suggested changes to the language which, if adopted, would “preserve greater flexibility in Havre de Grace and allow Upper Chesapeake to better meet evolving community needs in the future.”

He cited, as an example, a limit of 45 beds in a special psychiatric hospital. Sheldon suggested removing the requirement, since it is not in state or federal law.

“My question is, what if there is a demonstrable community need for more beds within a few years?,” Sheldon asked.

The four residents who spoke expressed concerns about public safety, the potential curtailment of medical services in the region and the fate of University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital downtown.

Upper Chesapeake Health plans to close Harford Memorial, open a free-standing medical center on 97 acres the health system owns near Bulle Rock and the I-95/Route 155 interchange and add more medical bed space to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air — thereby consolidating many of its medical services in Bel Air — all by late 2020 or early 2021.

More information about the Havre de Grace campus and a link to UCH’s applications to the Maryland Health Care Commission are available on the city website, at the home page link UM UCH Havre de Grace Medical Campus Information.

The Havre de Grace medical center would include a behavioral health – psychiatric – pavilion to provide inpatient and outpatient mental health care, as well as a full-service emergency room, beds for short-term medical stays up to 48 hours, testing and imaging services and medical office buildings.

The proposed psychiatric services have prompted concerns from neighbors about security.

“It’s unrealistic to obligate the adjacent sub-development, in which I live, to establish security for our homes and families without creating a walled community,” Donald Mulligan, a Monarchos Drive resident, whose neighborhood is adjacent to the UCH property, said. “Therefore, we’re dependent on UM-UCH and the local government to ensure that there’s effective security for the patients within the campus.”

Mulligan suggested UCH officials consider shifting the psychiatric services to areas close to the Perry Point VA Medical Center in Cecil County, or the Ashley Addiction Treatment Center south of Havre de Grace, since they are both in more secluded areas.

“I think that’s worth considering because either of those sites, in my opinion, would provide greater serenity for patients and greater security for the adjacent communities, compared to the I-95/Bulle Rock site,” he said.

Lynn Jurkowski, who lives in The Paddocks neighborhood adjacent to the Upper Chesapeake property, also brought up security concerns. She said she had read requests in UCH's application regarding inpatient units designed to stabilize people with “acute behavioral health conditions” and individuals “who present a danger to themselves or others.”

Jurkowski said she had also read about requests for facilities to treat people who have mental health and “co-occuring secondary substance abuse” issues.

She said she had read in the application about measures to keep patients secure, but “I didn’t see anything about protecting the neighborhood surrounding” the medical center.

She said she is “especially concerned” about not having a full-service hospital in Havre de Grace.

“I think the land-use requirements in this ordinance, as specified, are a wise strategy on the city’s part,” Jean Johnson, who lives near Tydings Park, said.

Johnson praised provisions such as the future general hospital conversion and requiring UCH to cover the cost of patient transfers from the new medical center to another hospital.

“We’ve been told many times by Upper Chesapeake folks that regionalization, tele-medicine, continuum of care, more accessible primary care and other realities is changing the face of hospital services, but the 18-mile distance between the [I-95/Route 155] interchange and the Bel Air campus will never change,” she said.

Bulle Rock resident Carolyn Zinner took UCH to task regarding provisions in its mission statement, such as a commitment to “service excellence as it offers a broad range of health care services, technology and facilities.”

Zinner listed services that have been cut back at Harford Memorial, such as the loss of surgical suites and a wound care center in the past two years.

“Little by little, services that are needed and were available not so long ago have gone missing, so how does that complement ‘service excellence’?” she asked.

Zinner suggested city leaders work with local legislators in Annapolis to pursue a “special rural community hospital” designation from the state for Havre de Grace.

That designation does not exist, but it is a recommendation of the state’s Workgroup on Rural Health Delivery, formed in 2016 in the wake of an outpouring of community concern about plans to curtail services at the University of Maryland Shore Medical Center in Kent County.

“We cannot continue to grant all [UCH] wishes until concrete plans and guarantees are presented that support their mission statement with more than just words,” Zinner said.

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