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Speakers say trauma center is essential in Hagerstown

July 26, 2002|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown-area residents and emergency workers told a state panel Thursday that lives are at stake unless Washington County Hospital reopens its trauma center.

Meanwhile, the hospital administration and its surgeons have not yet met to resolve issues that led to the trauma center's June 1 closing.

The panel of five trauma center experts from across the state convened Thursday to take public comment before making recommendations to Washington County Hospital's Trauma Task Force.

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Pat Kelly of Hagerstown said she believes her son survived a motorcycle crash because of the prompt care he got at the trauma center.

"It is my sincere hope that it will return because I know firsthand that minutes matter," she said.

Washington County Emergency Services Director Joe Kroboth said he has been asked often in the last two months whether any patients have been hurt by the trauma center's closing. So far, the answer has been no.

"We must realize it is inevitable to occur," he said.

Some of the speakers were dismayed that the issue largely boils down to money and the $1.9 million a year it costs the hospital to subsidize the trauma center.

"It's a shame if Washington County turns their back to all those people over dollars," said Ed Wines of Boonsboro.

The center's closing has burdened the county's already stretched thin ambulance crews, who have to take trauma patients to hospitals at least an hour's drive away for treatment, rescue officials said.

Since the trauma center closed, state police helicopters have been called twice as often to handle patients in the region, said Maj. Donald Lewis, commander of the state police aviation division.

Time spent covering those calls leaves other parts of the state shorthanded, he said.

Lewis estimates that the extra flight hours will cost between $195,000 and $260,000 a year if it continues at the current pace.

"We're saddened by what's happened here for many reasons, but mostly for the citizens. Without Washington County, patient care is compromised. I don't think there's any doubt about that," Lewis said.

When patients are taken to far-away hospitals, it's more difficult for their families to visit them, social workers at the hospital said.

From his wheelchair, Jeffrey Shuster told the panel that he was flown to the University of Maryland in Baltimore June 11 after he fell off a ladder in Thurmont, Md.

It was inconvenient for his family to drive to Baltimore to visit him during the week he was a patient there, he said.

Washington County Hospital's situation is not unique. Trauma centers across the country have been hurt by a series of industry trends, said John Spearman, chairman of the Maryland Trauma Center Network.

Hospitals are operating on lower profit margins and treating more people without adequate insurance. Doctors are receiving less money for their services while their malpractice insurance premiums are rising, he said.

Spearman said he would like to see a statewide solution to the problem. The Maryland General Assembly may be able to help, although any money would not arrive until a year from now.

But Washington County Hospital President and Chief Executive Officer James Hamill said during a break in the testimony that the local community must decide what level of trauma care it can sustain.

Hamill said the hospital and its surgeons are working to establish common ground.

"We're much closer. I think there's clearly a solution to this," he said.

The panel had asked for input from doctors, but the only one who came was Trauma Center Director Dr. Marc Kross.

Kross said he doesn't think there will be any progress until the hospital meets with the surgeons.

"There's just a lot of bad feelings here. People have to hang their egos at the door and get this program back," Kross said.

The surgeons are willing to provide the service, but they don't want to "pay for the privilege of taking care of trauma patients," Kross said. They also have issues concerning their schedules and a lack of emergency room technicians, he said.

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