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Delegation asks agency to approve hospital move

July 14, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly has asked a state agency to "act as quickly as possible" to approve plans to move Washington County Hospital from downtown Hagerstown.

The request to the Maryland Health Care Commission, which came in a letter dated Tuesday, drew fire from Hagerstown city officials during and after their public meeting Tuesday.

"To me, this is a slap in the face," Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said after reviewing a copy of the letter.

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The exchange is the most recent in the debate over plans to move the hospital, which is owned and operated by the nonprofit Washington County Health System.

Delegates John P. Donoghue, Robert A. McKee, LeRoy E. Myers, Christopher B. Shank and Richard B. Weldon, and Senators John J. Hafer, Alex X. Mooney and Donald F. Munson signed the letter, which was sent to Maryland Health Care Commissioner Robert Nicolay.

Nicolay is the commissioner in charge of reviewing the hospital's application for a certificate of need to move the hospital, a detailed report that includes cost analyses and other reasons why a new hospital is needed.

The full health-care commission must approve the certificate of need before the hospital can move. A hospital official said last week that the new application likely would be submitted before July 23, but it would be months before the commission would decide on the matter.

In the 11/2-page letter, the legislators say they support the plans to move near Robinwood Medical Center, calling the project "one of the largest quality-of-life and economic development initiatives ever proposed in our community."

The letter cited new plans to increase emergency room size, add a "newborn special care unit" and increase privacy. The letter also said "a new facility is desperately needed ... (and) project costs have inevitably increased.

"Accordingly, we feel it is important for the (Maryland Health Care) Commission to act as quickly as possible to review and approve the most recent application."

The letter sent Tuesday was the result of a meeting county legislators had July 7 with a member of the newly formed Hagerstown-Washington County Community Healthcare Coalition.

Coalition organizers said last week that they have worked closely with hospital staff since May, when hospital officials withdrew their original application for a certificate of need after getting indications from Nicolay that it would be rejected.

The group's organizers said they intend to build vocal community support for the move to the Robinwood site.

James Hamill, Washington County Health System president and chief executive officer, praised the letter and gave the coalition credit for prompting the letter.

"We're delighted ... and we hope the state listens to it," Hamill said Tuesday night.

City officials blasted the coalition and hospital officials Tuesday.

During the meeting, Councilman N. Linn Hendershot dismissed much of the hospital's information regarding cost estimates, zoning proposals and certificate-of-need information.

"We're seeing some of the best spin work ... anywhere, anytime," Hendershot said. One possible estimate, which Hendershot said came from a published health-care journal, would add another $100 million to the $175 million cost estimate given by hospital officials.

"We're looking at some cooked numbers" from the hospital, and "there's a real issue with Hamill and the way he's managing these issues," Hendershot said.

Hamill refused to comment on Hendershot's claims.

Hagerstown City Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire talked uninterrupted for 20 minutes, criticizing several people in the state legislature, the local business community and The Herald-Mail about their roles in the hospital's possible move, accusing them of supporting it without having adequate information.

In one portion of his comments, Aleshire singled out Shank, chairman of the delegation.

"He gets his ear bent for 10 minutes. ... All of a sudden, it's simple enough to pick your finger up and point it" at the City Council, Aleshire said.

Aleshire said after the meeting that he felt slighted by not being invited to join in the Community Healthcare Coalition's early conversations, but he said he has since joined the group after learning about its existence in a July 10 article in The Herald-Mail.

"Just don't not include us in private meetings for months and come out in public and point the finger at us," Aleshire said.

Aleshire and Breichner also assailed the letter, Aleshire claiming "it's pretty apparent that someone else wrote" the letter for Shank, and Breichner saying the letter had "no credibility."

Shank, reached Tuesday night, said "I take strong exception to the councilman. I wrote that letter myself," along with other delegation members, Shank said. In reference to Breichner's comment, Shank said the letter "certainly wasn't meant to be a slap. I don't think anyone interpreted it to be a slap."

Asked if he felt the letter pitted the council against the delegation, Breichner said, "It certainly doesn't help."

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