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At crunch time, Hamill comes through

October 23, 2005|By BOB MAGINNIS

Have you ever made a speech to a service club, or given a short talk to a Sunday School class? A half an hour can seem twice that long and the whole experience is as exhausting as any physical labor.

That's one reason I was impressed with Washington County Health System CEO James Hamill's perfomance this past Wednesday, as he attempted to persuade more than 100 citizens gathered at the Robinwood Medical Center that a new hospital at that location would be a good thing.

It is a risky thing to take the stage alone for more than two hours; we've all heard speakers who've worn out their welcome after 15 minutes. But Hamill gave as good a program as I've seen on this topic, no doubt because he knew that his presentation had to be dead-on. Why? Because millions of dollars and the success of the project could depend on how well he made the case for the need for a new hospital and for Robinwood as its site.

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The heat is on Hamill because the project is now at a critical point. The Washington County government recently announced a proposal for a flow-transfer agreement that would give the new hospital the sewage treatment it needs without affecting the City of Hagerstown's operations. (It would also spare the hospital from another potential confronation with city officials.)

And Gary Rohrer, the county's director of public works, is ensuring everyone that road upgrades will be adequate to the job of bringing traffic to and from the new hospital.

So what's left to do? Now Hamill and company must persuade the county's Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to modify a special exception received in 1991 that allowed construction of the medical center.

Back then, the Washington County School Board objected, fearing noise and traffic would be a detriment to Eastern Elementary School, which hadn't yet been built.

Perhaps to deal with those concerns, John J. McElwee Jr., then the hospital's vice president, said in September 1991 that hospital officials did not plan to move acute care beds out of the existing hospital, making it unlikely there would ever be helicopters or ambulances with sirens wailing coming to Robinwood.

A month later, the BZA made McElwee's promise part of their ruling, granting the exemption for the medical center, but stating that there could be no helicopter pad or regular emergency ambulance transports to Robinwood. A 35-foot height restriction would also remain, the ruling said.

Another section dealing with the 50-year plan also seems to rule out acute-care facilities, although the ruling also makes it clear the appellant can return for futher reviews.

Hamill has argued previously that in the past 13 years there has been a change in the character of the neighborhood, due to the phenomenal growth of the medical center. The synergy that would be made possible by locating the hospital and the medical center side-by-side would greatly improve health care in the region, Hamill has said.

I believe him. As I've written previously, imagine you're a trauma surgeon who is on call. If your office is next door to the hospital, or if the hospital can arrange for you to see patients there on the days you're on call, when the helicopter arrives, you'd be just a minute's walk away.

Opponents - and there were not many there Wednesday who were vocal about it - worry about the noise and the possibility that the roads that serve the facility will not be up to the job.

Hamill attempted to deal with the noise issue Wednesday, saying that the Maryland State Police usee one of the quietest helicopters made. And, he said, most ambuilance transports are patient transfers as opposed to emergencies, so the sirens don't have to wail.

Despite Rohrer's reassurances, I have some doubts about whether the roads will be done as quickly as he believes. The state's preliminary estimate for fixing the U.S 40/Edgewood Drive intersection was $8 million, but that figures didn't include the cost of rights-of-way and utility relocations. None of the intersection's four corners are vacant land, but developed commercial and office space, which could add another couple of million dollars to the price.

That said, the county government is more involved now than at any time since the project began. Members of the county's Economic Development Commission (EDC) have been meeting with hospital officials in an effort to get the project on the fast track.

In EDC's Oct. 12 meeting, the group dicussed the timing of the hospital's zoning application and the hopes that a hearing could be scheduled fairly quickly. There was also talk of holding it at Hagerstoiwn Community College's Kepler Theater so that it could be televised.

That would be good. This is a time for citizxens to pay attention, because the future of health care in this community is on the line. Hamill noted in disbelief that a survey showed that 5 percent of the people in the community weren't aware of any plan to move the hospital.

I'm more worried about those who know something's going on, but aren't sure quite what it is - and who may not be motivated enough to find out.

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