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Still at odds: City, hospital aren't yet on the same page

October 30, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Nobody was handing out roses at Monday's meeting between the Hagerstown Council and Washington County Hospital officials, but it seemed like there was hope for a compromise.

Not that there wasn't a bit of sniping by some on both sides, but they also seemed to recognize that, like divorced spouses who dislike each other but know they must cooperate for the kids' sake, both must work together on the hospital's proposed move to the Robinwood area.

The final hurdle was the city's request to be a "party of interest" in the Maryland Health Care Commission's review of the hospital's request for a certificate of need. As Councilman Lew Metzner said, once that process was done, he didn't anticipate the city trying to intervene any further.

But instead of allowing the process to play out, hospital officials on Tuesday filed a motion to have the city excluded from the proceedings, as if it had no legitimate issues to raise.

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Even if you support the move, that's a tough argument to make. The size of the hospital's proposed rate increase would have a major impact on the city's budget, by upping the amount the city has to pay for its employees' health-care costs.

The better move, in my view, would have been for the hospital to make its "party of interest" argument in Monday's open session, if only to make it easier to negotiate future agreements on water, sewer and annexation.

But to give hospital CEO James Hamill the benefit of the doubt, if he had considered sharing that with the council, it might have turned a meeting that lasted almost two hours into an all-nighter.

That's because while Hamill's presentation was organized and to the point, the ad-libbed remarks of some council members rambled on for what seemed like forever. I was glad I'd decided to watch it on TV so I could plead out loud for them to get to the point already.

City officials can broadcast on TV now, but haven't yet learned how to take maximum advantage of its power.

On Monday Hamill reviewed how the hospital board looked at renovation versus new construction and the site selection process that followed after it was decided that a new hospital, while more costly initially, would save money over time and provide better care.

The Robinwood site was one of three finalists, one which was knocked out by doctors' objections, the other because someone else optioned the property.

A new hospital within walking distance of Robinwood Medical Center will create great synergy between the two, he said.

On the plus side, Hamill said that within the last few weeks, hospital officials have met with city utility officials on issues and those talks have gone very well.

On the issue of whether the hospital should be annexed, Hamill said he needed guidance.

"We don't have a feel for that. Do you make more money on utilities by keeping us out?" Hamill asked.

At one point Hamill asked whether any private business had been subjected to such scrutiny, now or in the past. It might have been better, he said, if someone had asked more questions about the 1st Urban Fiber project.

(Hamill is lucky Steve Sager is no longer mayor, or he still might be listening to Sager talk about that ill-fated deal.)

For their part, both Councilman Kris Aleshire and Mayor Bill Breichner asked why the hospital had spent more than $3 million in development costs for the Robinwood site without first making sure that proper zoning could be obtained or whether utility service was available.

Other noteworthy points:

  • Asked about roads in and out, Hamill said that a bridge over the Antietam Creek that would provide access from Eastern Boulevard might have to be a federal project.

  • The previous agreement on the hospital's contribution to road work in the Robinwood area has a cap on it, related to the number of trips made to and from the facilities there, Hamill said.

  • No one broached the issue of annexing the Robinwood Medical Center, whose expensive medical suites would provide plenty of new city tax dollars.

  • The hospital will not truck medical waste through the city and will shut down the incinerator when the old hospital is shut down, Hamill said.

  • Councilman Lew Metzner noted that the synergy Hamill talked about between the hospital and the new medical center only became a plus factor after the Robinwood site was chosen.
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