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New hospital application raises questions for state

October 08, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - State regulators are expecting a response as soon as today from Washington County Hospital officials to 32 questions about plans to relocate the hospital.

In a Sept. 24 letter, regulators from the Maryland Health Care Commission asked hospital officials about the status of the process for seeking proper zoning for the proposed site and about clerical errors in the application. They also requested further information on several areas of the application.

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said the list of questions means city officials should no longer face criticism that the city has delayed the hospital's moving plans.

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The city on Wednesday issued a written statement that said the questions were not raised by the city, but by the agency reviewing the hospital plans. The letter called on citizens "interested in making sure the relocation of the hospital is done right" to review the questions.

Washington County Health System President and CEO James Hamill said, "I'm not sure what the intent (of the city's statement) is. We took the questions from the state on face value. ... This is part of the normal process of staff at the state level getting clarification."

The health system owns and operates the hospital.

Hamill previously accused city officials of delaying the project, but recently eased his stance.

Hospital officials are in the midst of their second attempt to push plans through the state regulatory process. After withdrawing their initial application in May, officials submitted a second application in mid-September.

Under those plans, a new hospital would be built near Robinwood Medical Center. Once the current hospital on East Antietam Street is vacated, it would be torn down and the land would be sold.

According to the application, the project will take approximately 30 months to complete and will cost $174.8 million to build, and will require another $58.4 million in financing costs to complete.

Hamill said he believes the construction could be complete in October 2007.

On Thursday, Mayor William M. Breichner said the city's statement was intended to address criticism directed toward the city. He said he and other officials have been told they are holding up the plans.

"Everybody's been implying that the City of Hagerstown is the culprit in the whole process," Breichner said.

Breichner said the letter shows the application submitted by the hospital has shortcomings.

"We haven't done anything," Breichner said.

Breichner addressed the commission's first question, which asks, in part, "Has WCH formally requested that Washington County issue the zoning variance, land use, and/or site plan approvals necessary for the proposed project? ..."

Breichner asked, "Why would a developer ... design, promote, apply for a project when they don't know if they're going to get the zoning application approved?"

Hamill said hospital officials recently contacted county planners about the zoning process, but said he was not sure if a request had been submitted.

County Planner Michael Thompson said Thursday he would be involved in the review, but has not seen a request.

Pamela Barclay, who is in charge of the application's review for the Health Care Commission, said that while the questions are detailed, the number of questions is not unusual because of the size of the project.

Barclay said it likely will be at least three months before her agency issues a decision, but "there are factors that could come into the review that we don't know" about.

One factor that could extend the review process is whether anyone successfully files to become an "interested party," a special designation the Health Care Commission gives to people who prove they have a financial stake in the decision.

Last year, the City of Hagerstown gained interested-party status, and subsequently spent $300,000 on legal and consulting fees.

City officials have said they will not support spending any more money on fighting the hospital's application, but Breichner has left open the possibility of joining the case as an interested party.

"I think we've already indicated that we have an interest in the project. After all it is in the city. ... We represent 36,000 citizens of this town," Breichner said.

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