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City wants voice in hospital's plans

November 17, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Hagerstown city officials will ask state regulators for more scrutiny of plans to move Washington County Hospital, an action that the hospital's top official on Tuesday called a "disappointment."

A letter sent by a representative of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield also indicates a request for more scrutiny of the application, although the hospital's top official said he did not think the request by the state's largest insurer was ill-intended.

In a closed meeting last week, the Hagerstown City Council in a 4-1 vote favored applying for "interested party" status in connection with Washington County Hospital's application for a certificate of need to move, Mayor William M. Breichner said Tuesday. City Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire was opposed.

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The certificate of need application is the main document being considered by the Maryland Health Care Commission, which will decide whether to allow the hospital to move from East Antietam Street to a site near Robinwood Medical Center. The total project cost is estimated at $233 million.

Interested party status is a special status that, if granted, would allow the city to argue claims made by hospital officials in a process similar to legal proceedings.

While the move to join as an interested party was made official last week, city officials previously indicated they would do so. City officials have questioned facts in the hospital's Sept. 10 application, and have said they have a right to question the application on behalf of city residents.

On Tuesday, the city had not sent its request to the Health Care Commission, but Breichner said that would be done soon.

Once the letter is received, the Health Care Commission must turn over the city's request, and any other requests for interested party status, to one of the commission members. That commissioner will decide who, if anyone, will be granted the special status.

Prior version


The City of Hagerstown argued successfully last year to gain the special status in connection with a previous version of the hospital plans. During that effort, the city spent about $300,000 on legal and health care experts to dispute the application, which hospital officials eventually withdrew in May.

City officials have said this time they do not wish to hire outside experts, but intend to use the City Attorney's Office in any filings with the health care commission.

City Finance Director Alfred Martin said the work by the City Attorney's Office, which is a private legal office retained by the city, is not expected to cost "anywhere near" the cost associated with the expert advice.

A separate request by a representative of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to become an interested party was sent Oct. 27 to the health care commission's Baltimore headquarters, according to a copy of the letter.

In the three-paragraph letter, CareFirst representative Jack Keane asks for documents relevant to the hospital's application, and wrote that the insurer should be an interested party because the insurer will pay the hospital approximately $22 million this year.

Keane also wrote that the request "does not reflect any specific CareFirst position at this time."

A message left Tuesday night for Keane at a Baltimore phone number was not returned by deadline.

Hagerstown City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot said during the council's Tuesday work session that he believed the letter indicated further problems for the hospital's application.

"That's an incredible red flag," Hendershot said.

Washington County Health System President and CEO James Hamill, reached by phone Tuesday night, said he has seen a copy of the letter and has spoken with CareFirst representatives since the letter was written. The health system owns and operates the hospital.

"The information we have is that (CareFirst officials) are in support of the project," Hamill said.

Hamill was less positive about the city's action.

"It's another disappointment," Hamill said. "I think it's another attempt to block or stop the project."

Last week, the council declined an offer by hospital officials that included $26 million in donations to the city, the county and the Washington County Board of Education.

City officials said they turned down the offer because they believed the numbers were not realistic, and the offer hinged on a request to annex the hospital and handle zoning once the land was part of the city. City officials said they want hospital officials to seek the zoning changes through the county government, not the city.

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