Frustrated residents voice opposition to Laurel Regional's closure

"The community and all the stakeholders are all working together; the missing link is Dimensions."

At Laurel Regional Hospital, Lionel Chapman is Mr. Fix-It. The mechanical engineer and six-year hospital employee prides himself on his ability to repair anything he touches, whether it's air conditioning and heating units, ice machines or kitchen equipment.

But, his job doesn't stop there. After a hard day's work, Chapman joins his wife, Ashley, in raising their 10 children, ages 10 months to 16, at their home in Laurel.

The last few months, however, have been a whirlwind for the Chapman family following hospital owner Dimensions Healthcare System's decision to close and transition the facility into a $24 million ambulatory care center by 2018.

The Chapmans joined the community Tuesday evening at Laurel's Partnership Hall to voice their frustration, alongside hospital employees, members of United Healthcare Workers East union, Maryland state Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk and Laurel Rescue Squad representatives. So far, pink slips have been given to 118 employees as the Maternal and Child Health unit is set to close on Oct. 11, with additional layoffs effective Nov. 7.

Union Vice President Jennifer Epps said they are forming "a coalition of concerned people" to spread the word of the detrimental consequences following the hospital's announced closure.

"The community and all the stakeholders are all working together; the missing link is Dimensions," Epps said. "Speaking as someone who represents union members, the people who work there are terrified. I think there is a lot of trepidation and a lot of fear."

While Dimensions has ensured that employees will find other positions within the system, Epps said the hospital owners are "making" employees apply for positions they currently hold.

"Particularly in our intensive care unit, they are making the nurses apply for the jobs they are simply doing," she said. "We are saying that that is not only a violation of the contract, but also unconscionable. They're taking this opportunity to really treat people unfairly."

When the first pink slips were handed out in the maternal and child health unit, Chapman said a depression entered the facility.

"We heard talks and we had meetings, but actual pink slips were handed out," Chapman said. "People who you have a relationship with are now in this situation."

Although Chapman was told he would remain on staff for the time being, his wife took matters into her own hands — or her own iPhone — creating a gaming app, Swoopy Bat, to add to the family's income. The family-friendly game centers on the red-eyed purple bat, Neo, as gamers tap on the phone screen to lead him through the galaxy, collecting flies for points, while avoiding soaring owls and icicles from above and below.

"Apps are a huge trend nowadays," Ashley Chapman said. "I wanted to find out how I could make one, what makes a game addictive and what are people playing. So, I looked into it a lot and found out it was something I could do at home without having to leave, which is a big part in why I decided to get into it."

She released the gaming app Sept. 22 on iTunes. The family only receives less than $1 per download; not enough to replace Lionel Chapman's income from the hospital.

"I'm asking myself, 'What am I going to do now?' It's a little bit discouraging," Lionel Chapman said. "After six years now, I'm creating a resume again and just trying to take advantage of anything I can to create some type of income."

Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad Chief Mike Haggerty said the hospital's closure will cause a ripple effect in healthcare throughout the city. Since the rescue squad's founding in 1952, Haggerty said the team has provided EMS and transport service to city residents, answering 3,200 calls a year.

"Eighty-seven percent of our transports we do in the Laurel area go to Laurel Regional Hospital," he said. "It's the closest facility and, based on a lot of our protocols, that's where we have to go. Eliminating Laurel and downgrading its care will significantly affect our transport because we'll have to transport a patient who might need a greater level of long-term care to a facility that's further away."

Even though Haggerty assured that distance wasn't an issue, he said problems may occur in the time it takes units to get back in the area.

"I have full confidence that my people can take care of just about anybody, as well as the fire department, so I think you're in good hands," Haggerty said. "But, the longer out-of-service time with us having to drive to that hospital is going to have a significant impact on the city."

Speaking on behalf of the District 21 state delegation, Peña-Melnyk said a house bill, PG 406-16, has been drafted, requiring Prince George's County hospitals to give the Board of Health 90 days' notice before a closure. The bill will also require the Board of Health to hold a public hearing within five miles of the hospital no longer than 30 days after receiving the hospital's notice. The Board must then consider all oral and written testimony from the public hearing before making a decision.

"When you're closing a hospital, you should also have a hearing to see if it's the right thing to do," Peña-Melnyk said. "Every hospital loses money. I've always asked the same question: How is Laurel doing? Not once did they say Laurel was in trouble."

Peña-Melnyk urged the Laurel community to testify in support of the bill at a hearing on Nov. 16 at 6 p.m. at the Prince George's County Sports and Learning Center.

As the fight to save Laurel Regional continues, Chapman is finding solace in his family and coworkers, making every patient's stay one that matters.

"I've learned to pray before I come to work," Chapman said. "It's made me more of a dedicated Christian. If I experience something that I encounter that just kind of throws me back a little bit, I say, 'Lord, what am I supposed to learn from this?' There's a transformation of just trying to come in and continue to smile."

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