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State should apologize for scaring patients' kin

July 02, 2005

S. Anthony McCann, Maryland's Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene, is scheduled to visit Hagerstown's Potomac Center today at 1:15 p.m.

The first thing on his agenda should be an apology to the parents and relatives of the center's 59 patients.

Why an apology? Because a budget analysis by the state's Department of Legislative Services, accessible from the Web site of McCann's agency, recommended that this facility for the profoundly disabled be closed in fiscal 2006.

That set off a wave of fear among parents and relatives of the 59 residents, who under any closure plan would likely be transferred to centers more than 70 miles away.

Then the state said, "Oops." A spokesman for McCann's department, who said he could not give his name, said there were no plans to close the center. But what happens 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, he said he couldn't predict.

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Even though he didn't apologize for scaring patients' relatives, give this anonymous underling credit for being honest. The fight to keep Potomac Center open isn't over as long as the state's budget analysts see Washington County's health-care facilities as prime targets for their axes.

For example, earlier this year, Holly Place and North Holly Place, two local assisted-care facilities for the indigent elderly, were nearly closed after a state agency changed the rules on the care it would finance.

Apparently state officials didn't do the math. If they had, they would have realized that if the Holly Place facilities had been closed, 20 residents there would have been transferred to nursing homes.

That would have doubled the state's monthly costs for their care from $2,000 to $4,000 per patient and increased the annual bill for their care from $480,000 to nearly $1 million.

This latest budget analysis - the one that has now been disavowed - said that $600,000 a year could be saved by closing the Potomac Center.

Apparently whoever wrote that didn't read a 2004 report that said that it would cost $7 million to mothball the center and move the patients. Also lost, the 2004 report said, would be the cost savings achieved by sharing food services with the Western Maryland Hospital Center.

Since no one knows - or will admit - how this analysis got posted on a state Web site, we don't know who wrote it.

However, it's safe bet that the writers never had the experience of finding that the child they'd hoped for was profoundly retarded.

We also doubt that these analysts ever had to search for a place for a child whose multiple medical conditions made it impossible to care for him or her at home.

To budget analysts with no experience with a profoundly disabled family member, it might seem logical to ask someone to drive 70 miles to an out-of-county facility to save the state money.

But this sort of heartless number-crunching would seem logical only if you've never met the people doing the driving - or had to wonder whether with today's gasoline prices you could afford to make the drive as often as you would like.

The words we used in 2000 after a previous closure recommendation are apt today:

When we consider how much the state has committed to public works for perfectly healthy people in the last few years, it's time to agree that the state is finally prosperous enough to exempt such facilities from normal budget procedures.

Fund facilities such as the Potomac Center first, then worry about whether state officials will get new cars or nurse the old ones along for another year.

Let's promise the parents who've suffered so much stress in their lives that the next economic downturn won't mean seeing their children shipped to a consolidated facility 100 miles away.

Are these real possibilities? Ask the parents of patients at the Western Maryland Hospital Center, who've had to fight such battles in years past. It's time for the Washington County delegation to calm these people's fears by working to pass a law that declares that when budgets need to be cut, places like the Potomac Center will be the last ones to feel the pain.

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