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Councilman says questions actually helpful to hospital

August 13, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner on Tuesday said the city's public questioning of Washington County Hospital's planned move to a site outside the city is not only appropriate, but is helpful to the hospital because it clarifies documents it filed with the state.

"I almost feel like we are doing the hospital a great service," Metzner said after a presentation on the issue at Tuesday's meeting.

The city is asking the Maryland Health Care Commission to deny the Washington County Hospital Association's request for a certificate of need, which the hospital must obtain before it can move from its Antietam Street building to hospital-owned land adjacent to the Robinwood Medical Center on Robinwood Drive.

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The city, which does not want to lose one of its largest employers, has retained David Funk, a Baltimore lawyer, at $200 an hour, and an expert in the field, Hal Cohen of Baltimore, at $250 an hour.

Both spoke to the City Council about the hospital's application for the certificate of need and of an Aug. 1 letter the city sent to the Health Care Commission. The letter contained a list of questions the city wants the hospital to answer.

Barry Nickelsberg, a hospital spokesman, has said the city's questioning of the hospital's plans will delay the project. Cohen said any delays that occur are the fault of "so many shortfalls in the application itself."

Cohen said the document contains errors and doesn't answer some questions it raises.

For example, Cohen said, the application's estimated total proposed capital costs of $164 million for the hospital includes $17 million for contingencies but does not explain the reason for such a large contingency fund.

Hospital officials attended the meeting but had no comment on the presentation. A spokeswoman said earlier in the day the hospital would have no comment on the council presentation.

Funk said that after the Health Care Commission received the city's letter, it sent a second set of questions to the hospital. That demonstrates the city is prompting a more careful examination of the hospital's application, he said.

The city, for example, wants the hospital to provide any documents or studies that show it would be more cost-effective to build a new hospital outside the city than to build at the existing site.

The commission made the same request in a letter it later sent the hospital.

Cohen said he also wants to know if the hospital could keep patient rate increases lower if a new hospital were built in the city with financial help from the city.

"The hospital assumes a permanent increase in rates as follows: 9.54 percent effective March 1, 2004, and another rate increase of 3.56 percent effective July 1, 2005," the application states.

That means the hospital would be increasing rates to patients before the new hospital was open, Cohen said.

In its application, the hospital says it expects the project to be finished in 2008 following a 30-month construction period.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said the city is not trying to stop the hospital from leaving the city but wants to ensure the hospital acts appropriately and responsibly.

Cohen was, from 1972 to 1987, executive director of Maryland's Health Services Cost Review Commission, another agency from which the hospital must get approval if it is to proceed with the planned move.

Nickelsberg has criticized the city's actions, saying the questions came months after the hospital announced in November 2002 that it had chosen the Robinwood site over other city and county sites.

Metzner said the city is asking the questions now because the application to the state was submitted only in the last month.

Nickelsberg is the executive director of development, community relations and marketing for the Washington County Health System.

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