City fought the good fight, but it's time to move hospital forward

December 22, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

To Hagerstown City Council members making life difficult for the Washington County Hospital relocation effort, this ought to be a sobering thought: What if they win?

What if the hospital were to suddenly throw its hands up and say "You know what? You're right. A new hospital is a bad idea; let's live with the one we have now for, oh, let's say another five decades."

The city has every right to ask tough questions, and the hospital has been wrong to take offense to those questions. The city is right to be tough. But does it want to be too tough, to the point the whole project goes up in smoke?

Twenty years down the road, does this council want to be remembered as the council that killed the new hospital?

The city's road is littered with projects that were there for the picking over the years, but never got done - the roundhouse, stadium, a comprehensive northeast bypass, Civil War museum.


But there projects were optional equipment; a modern hospital is not. This is one logjam that needs to break, and soon.

Let's stipulate that both sides have their points, and some degree, have a right to be soured on each other.

It must have flabbergasted CEO Jim Hamill and Co. that any resistance whatsoever would be offered to the prospect of a shining new jewel of a center that would be the envy of the Western Maryland medical community.

The hospital moved ahead as if it simply assumed everyone would be pleased with the project and grateful for it - and in so doing, it got ahead of itself in terms of paying the proper respects to the powers that be.

It didn't foresee that the city would look at this gift horse in the mouth, ears, nose and throat. It didn't foresee because, to hear the city tell it, the hospital never asked.

If that was the only thing bugging the city (hurt feelings) this issue wouldn't even be worthy of debate. But the city does have a few points. Primarily, three things ought to concern the city: Will city residents who skew toward car-less seniors and poor, single parents, have access? And once there, will its lower-income residents be able to afford it? And finally, who pays for the necessary sewer, water and roads expansions?

The city not only has the right to ask these questions, it has the responsibility.

But early on, especially in the case of Mayor Bill Breichner, it seemed these were secondary concerns to the impact the hospital move would have on the downtown economy.

And if that's the main concern, someone needs to give the city a good shake. Where public health is concerned, economic development should never be more than an afterthought. The location of the hospital is up to the hospital; it has to view itself in a care-providing light, not as an economic development engine.

So here we have the end product: The hospital should have met and listened early and frequently with the city, but didn't. The city should be trying to solve problems instead of thinking up new problems, but isn't.

And now it's reached the point where the logical onlooker has to ask whether the fuss is over the hospital relocation itself, or whose ego - Hamill's or Breichner's - will end up with the biggest bruise.

The city, which lives in an "us against the world" biosphere, is unlikely to splinter. Yet at least two council members have endorsed a new hospital - saying it needs to built, it just needs to be built in the most cost-effective and patient-friendly way possible.

The mayor of Hagerstown does not have a vote. Three council members are enough to rule the day. And three council members need to step up and lead. That means going to the mayor privately and saying "Enough. A new hospital has our vote."

It is eminently possible to raise questions about the project without opposing the project. If the council members who say they support the hospital, in theory at least, are sincere, it should be enough for them to have a day to express their concerns to the Maryland medical governing body that will decide the issue.

Storming the medical commission with lawyers, guns and money like the last man standing in the Alamo is futile and wrong. We as a community do not want to plant the seed with any state agency that this major new project is unwanted. It would be too easy for a state agency to quizzically shrug its shoulders and "OK fine, no hospital."

Is that what the city wants?

Is that what Bill Breichner wants?

To go down in history as the six men and women who lost a fine new hospital for Washington County? Yes, perhaps the city got bullied to a degree, and there is a natural human instinct to hold your ground if you believe you have been wronged.

But it's big-picture time. Modern medicine simply cannot take a back seat to a sewer line, to 20 extra minutes in a cab or to a dozen fewer shoppers downtown.

It is a pale legacy indeed to have to tell your grandchildren, "Yes you will have to live with that same old broken down hospital all your lives, but by God, we didn't blink, so you should thank us for that."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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