Hospital undermines coalition's good work with 'cooked' flap

August 08, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

If only Washington County Hospital were on the wrong side of this issue - that would make things so much easier.

Instead, those of us who believe in a new hospital, but not in strong-arm tactics, had another one of those uncomfortable moments recently when the hospital called out its lawyer attack-hounds to go after Hagerstown City Councilman Linn Hendershot.

And to make matters worse, instead of being quiet when being quiet was called for, the hospital defiantly stuck out its chin and walked straight into a haymaker from Hendershot's fellow councilman Lew Metzner this week.

This whole story goes back a few weeks, when the hospital, er, a coalition of concerned citizens and business leaders banded together to initiate a public relations campaign designed to win public hearts and pressure the City of Hagerstown into dropping its opposition to a new hospital at Robinwood.


As its calling card, this coalition has a rosy balance sheet chock full of millions on millions of tax dollars and fees the city would reap if it would annex in the new hospital and adjoining lands beyond.

That was a good idea and an interesting point of debate. So far so good.

But honestly, no one was ever going to totally believe the coalition's numbers, which made it sound as if Hagerstown wasn't so much building a hospital as hitting a lottery. It was only a matter of time when someone - and it happened to be Hendershot - pointed out that the numbers were "cooked."

Cooked? Well of course they were cooked to a degree. What advocacy group doesn't massage its numbers? We know that, we expect that, it was no big deal. The only real argument would be whether "cooked" is a more sinister term than "overly optimistic." Most coalition members understood. They said, "Look, even if you take these numbers and cut them in half it's still a good deal for the city."

But here, the hospital demonstrated the tone deafness that has shadowed this whole debate.

The coalition/hospital should have either ignored Hendershot's comments or, better, debated them publicly, as some coalition members quite properly do elsewhere on this page.

Instead, the hospital took thunderous umbrage that anyone would dare question the numbers it had blessed us with from on high and rousted the attorneys, who fired off two ominous, almost threatening letters to Hendershot - a man widely acknowledged not only for his intellect, but also for his kindness and decency.

Those among us who were cringing at this PR disaster at least figured it couldn't get any worse, which, of course, it immediately did.

Just as the hospital's sound and fury was reaching its crescendo, along comes Councilman Metzner who casually says in the middle of a public meeting something along the lines of, "OK fine, we'll accept the coalition's numbers at face value and withdraw our opposition." The only condition being that these revenue estimates be guaranteed - implying that if they were not met, the hospital would pay the city the difference.


Even though this was an offer made partially in jest, the truth was obvious. The hospital could never agree to this deal because the hospital itself knows the revenue may never entirely materialize.

So once again, the hospital walks away with egg on its face, having been clotheslined by an inferior force.

The hospital believes, genuinely believes, that the city hasn't played fair, spreading rumors and cooking statistics of its own and hiring expensive consultants to torpedo the hospital's application before the Maryland Health Commission for no good reason. Perhaps the hospital simply believes it's matching the city tactic for tactic.

The coalition, however, was formed to raise the level of discourse, to explain to the public why medical care will be better and how our people will be healthier with a new facility. It was supposed to be good, positive information.

But instead of being patient and letting the coalition do its work, the hospital leaped in with its claws bared the second its authority was questioned - rattling its legal sabers against a respected civic leader who accomplishes more from the seat of his wheelchair that most of us do on two good legs.

Great job, hospital. Any fawns you want to slaughter on Public Square while you're at it?

If we want a perfect microcosm of why the hospital has failed to woo the city, there it is. You get the sense that the hospital is so used to hearing people ask "how high" when it says jump, that it is totally incapable of flexibility when it runs into a gang of independent thinkers (recall the trauma center fiasco).

Administrators see the case for a new hospital as a slam dunk. I believe it's pretty close to a slam dunk, but not so close that intelligent people can't disagree. And certainly, it is not only the city council's right, it is the city council's duty to drive a hard bargain. It is reasonable to believe the city is legitimately concerned about affordability, access for its downtown elderly and traffic congestion.

True, some of the city's objections and demands have been silly. A hospital move will not damage downtown much. And it's a little irrational to think the hospital should be responsible for renovating half of the city it is leaving behind.

How much of this heel-digging has come about because council members feel as if the hospital is treating them like children? Hard to say. But it's increasingly apparent that if plans for a new hospital crash and burn, the blame will not rest entirely on one side. It will rest with both.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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