Hospital's Reprieve Leaves Questions

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson said yesterday that the county will probably pay "tens of millions" over the next 15 months to keep its hospital system running.

"It's not cheap," he acknowledged, noting that he was waiting to hear from the private company that runs the system about its exact needs.

The county agreed Wednesday to pay the costs of keeping the three hospitals and two nursing homes afloat through June 2008, staving off closure of a system that serves more than 180,000 people a year. Johnson (D) said the money would come from the county's budget or its rainy-day fund.

The county's offer came after talks broke down between local and state officials over a deal to create a hospital authority to run the system, anchored by Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly.

On the final day of the General Assembly session, the County Council rejected an eight-year, $329 million package to share with the state the costs of operating support and hospital renovations. With stable funding, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and lawmakers had hoped to attract a new management company.

Council leaders said the state deal would not have fully reimbursed the county for the value of the hospital's land and buildings, which Prince George's owns and leases to Dimensions Healthcare System. To come up with the county's yearly payment, they also believed they would have to reduce support for schools and police.

And they decried the plan as a "Band-Aid" approach that did not address the structural issues that have cost the system millions of dollars, including the thousands of uninsured patients using the hospitals.

County leaders frankly acknowledged yesterday that their own solution did little to resolve the long-term problems. "We understand this is really not the end. This is a stopgap," Johnson said.

The approach does little to reassure employees who have watched the system lurch from one funding crisis to another, said a union leader representing hospital workers.

"I'm sure workers are happy they'll have a job tomorrow, but they don't want to be going through this 12 months from now," said Quincey Gamble, legislative director of the Service Employees International Union's Local 1199. "Especially for nurses, this doesn't do much to ease anxiety."

With the immediate crisis over, however, all parties voiced willingness to keep working toward a deal. Johnson said he would call O'Malley in the coming days. "We need to talk in a relaxed manner," he said.

County Council Chairman Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) said the panel was "open and available to engage in conversations."

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