Forget gambling — Prince George’s should go all in on health care

May 4, 2012

The 2012 session of the Maryland General Assembly will be long remembered for the failed effort to expand casino gambling and the last-minute collapse of crucial legislation needed to balance the state budget.

But even if lawmakers return to Annapolis soon to resolve their differences on the budget, they should leave the gaming expansion on the shelf, or at least the piece of the plan that would bring a billion-dollar casino to National Harbor in Prince George’s County. It is not at all clear that gaming will be the panacea for the cash-strapped county that backers such as County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) have made it out to be.

I propose a different approach to solving Prince George’s budget dilemma: Make the county the go-to destination for quality health care in the region.

When health care is placed next to gaming, there’s no comparison. A large, 21st-century health-care sector would be a much more reliable way to bring revenue and good, permanent jobs to the county in an industry with huge potential for growth. And it also would address another stubborn challenge facing the county: finding a way to improve health care in Prince George’s, which falls near the bottom of many regional health-care measurements.

Crucially, Baker has already laid the foundation for this approach by securing an agreement to bring in a state-of-the-art University of Maryland teaching hospital to supplant Prince George’s Hospital Center. Because it would benefit the entire state, the medical center has been endorsed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and has strong backing in the General Assembly.

This is where we should focus all our efforts. Even under the most optimistic of proposals, proponents admit that the county will not reap the benefits of gaming for at least four or five years. They also acknowledge that a portion of gambling revenue would need to be set aside to address the social ills that inevitably come with it.

It’s true that gaming revenue sounds attractive (Baker has estimated $69 million annually), as does the promise of job creation and a $1 billion investment in a facility designed to draw deep-pocketed tourists. But a new hospital, and the companion health-care network that officials have promised to create, would do the same thing and more.

Prince George’s County would see a steady stream of patients eager for the best care at the best price. Working with the state to create this medical center would help not only the 125,000 county residents who lack adequate health insurance, but would also bring back some of the 400,000 insured county residents who elect to have services performed outside the county.

Imagine this vision for Prince George’s: a new, $600 million health-care system that’s poised to grow and capi­tal­ize as medicine advances for decades to come. A large new source for primary care, specialists, inpatient care and surgery. An emergency center equipped to handle cases from across southern and central Maryland. An influx of businesses from suppliers to medical practices to restaurants and shops. Hundreds of good jobs, with more being created all the time. Bright career opportunities for our young people. Better care for Prince George’s residents.

Unlike with the casino plan, no one can dispute that this would be a good bet for Prince George’s. We don’t need to chase after gambling dollars. Let’s go all in on health care.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Prince George’s County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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