State review for Upper Chesapeake Vision 2020 project delayed

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The state review of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s Vision 2020 plans has been delayed since the Harford County based hospital operator encountered opposition from City of Havre de Grace officials, the reviewing agency has confirmed.

“We’re clearly, I think, taking the correct course and waiting and seeing what’s going to happen,” Paul Parker, director of the Center for Health Care Facilities Planning & Development at the Maryland Health Care Commission, said late last week.

The state regulatory agency must sign off on Upper Chesapeake’s plans before the health system can proceed with construction.

Upper Chesapeake has been working to modify its earlier application for a special psychiatric hospital while seeking a new site, with Aberdeen being the latest choice, for a combined psychiatric hospital and freestanding medical center, health system leaders have acknowledged.

Parker said the full project could have been nearing final approval this summer, had it not been for UCH’s request to modify its application for the psychiatric hospital and subsequent issues with Havre de Grace officials, of which he also said the commission is aware.

In ‘holding pattern’

The health system’s applications remain on the commission’s docket for review for now, he said, although that could change if a review is suspended for “a protracted period of time,” because the commission wants to be fair to other applicants.

“We’re essentially in a holding pattern; we’re waiting to hear from Upper Chesapeake Health on the psychiatric hospital,” Parker said. “Do we actually have a project we can go forward with, with respect to a freestanding medical facility and consolidation of the two hospitals?”

The medical center/psychiatric hospital originally had been slated for 97 acres Upper Chesapeake owns near the Bulle Rock community in Havre de Grace and the Interstate-95/Route 155 interchange.

Because of what appears to be an impasse with Havre de Grace city officials over the design of the project and the future of Harford Memorial Hospital, which Upper Chesapeake wants to close, and over other issues such as site plan approval, infrastructure cost sharing and traffic control, the health system has been looking at other sites, primarily the Merritt Properties’ Aberdeen Corporate Park.

The Aberdeen mayor and City Council approved two ordinances recently to grant hospitals exemption from building height requirements in commercial and industrial zones and to allow a helicopter landing site to be built in a B-3 commercial zone.

Parker said it would not make sense to proceed on final reviews and approvals of the other aspects of Vision 2020, since “we don’t know if their other projects are going to change as well at this point.”

Upper Chesapeake Health, the largest private employer in Harford County, announced in early 2016 the $160 million Vision 2020 plan, which its leaders said would enable them to consolidate services and move toward a more regional model rather than operating multiple community hospitals in a relatively small market.

The plan called for closing Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace and opening the freestanding medical center, with a full-service emergency room, and building the 40-bed psychiatric hospital to provide inpatient and outpatient behavioral health services. Some medical services provided at the aging Harford Memorial facility, such as long-term inpatient acute medical and surgical hospital stays, would be consolidated in an expanded Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

Officials with UCH estimated a year would be needed for regulatory approval and two years for construction, with an estimated opening date of late 2020 or early 2021.

The health system filed an application with the MHCC in August 2017 for a certificate of need to build the special psychiatric hospital on 32 of its 97 acres near Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, plus two applications for certificates of exemption — one to convert the acute-care Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace to the planned free-standing medical center near Bulle Rock and the other to expand the Bel Air hospital.

This spring, however, Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, sent a letter to the regulatory commission, alerting them that a modified application for a certificate of need for the psychiatric hospital would be submitted.

“At this time, UM UCH’s timeline for submission of a modified CON application is uncertain,” Sheldon wrote in the May 17 letter to MHCC Executive Director Ben Steffen, a copy which the commission’s Parker provided to The Aegis. “As a result, UM UCH requests that the Commission indefinitely delay formal consideration of UM UCH’s CON application until such time as it submits a modified application.”

The modified application had not been submitted as of the end of last week.

No date for application

“UM UCH continues their Vision 2020 project planning; however, no date has been identified for submission of our updated application for our psychiatric facility,” Upper Chesapeake Health spokesperson Martha Mallonee wrote in an Aug. 30 email. .

Local and regional health system major capital projects must be reviewed by MHCC staff, as well as agencies such as the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, or MIEMSS, and the Health Services Cost Review Commission, before applications proceed to the 15-member commission for final approval, according to MHCC’s Parker.

Comments submitted by “interested parties” on the certificate of need application must be reviewed and addressed, as well, before the commission grants final approval. Interested parties cannot participate in a certificate of exemption review, Parker said.

The agency also must give interested parties the opportunity to file new comments, should the psychiatric hospital aspect change. The Cost Review Commission must complete its review, as well, to ensure the “financial feasibility” of Vision 2020, Parker said.

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