Hospital Officials Sue Pr. George's for Funding

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has called for four members of the Prince George's hospital system's board of directors to resign and is withholding money until that happens.
County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has called for four members of the Prince George's hospital system's board of directors to resign and is withholding money until that happens. (2006 Photo By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The nonprofit company that runs the Prince George's hospital system has gone to court to pry loose public dollars that hospital officials say are needed to keep the system open.

In a legal motion filed late Monday, attorneys for the Dimensions Healthcare System argue that county officials have broken a promise to keep the hospitals' doors open without attaching strings to the money. County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has said he will release no money to the financially troubled system, which runs Prince George's Hospital Center and several other county facilities, until four members of its board of directors resign.

The directors have accused Johnson of attempting to take over the system and have refused to step down.

Dimensions attorneys asked the court to award the system $2 million immediately, money the County Council had designated be spent on the hospitals by June 30. They also asked that the county begin releasing monthly payments on $12 million included in its budget to cover expenses for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Without the money, the hospital system will "cease to be a financially viable concern" and will be forced to close after the first week of August, the filing says.

Separately, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) proposed yesterday that $20 million approved by lawmakers in April for an "orderly closure" of the hospital system be redirected to a state reserve fund as part of a larger budget-cutting exercise.

Without that money, Dimensions spokeswoman Suzanne Almalel said, a possible closure would be chaotic. "It'll be an implosion," she said. A hearing on the Dimensions lawsuit has been scheduled for July 26, Almalel said. Meanwhile, the Dimensions board is scheduled to meet tomorrow to consider its next steps, including possibly filing for bankruptcy or closing.

Johnson's aides have said the executive has no intention of backing down. He contends mismanagement by the board is partly to blame for the system's financial losses. To bolster the claim, his aides last week circulated a fact sheet noting that the system is losing millions more today than it was three years ago.

"The money is available but not to this bankrupt board," said Johnson spokesman James Keary.

Keary has mocked the notion of a lawsuit, likening it to a child who gets bad grades suing his father for withholding his allowance.

Dimensions' leaders issued a news release to highlight errors in the county's fact sheet. They acknowledge that losses have mounted but attribute them to the costs of caring for the uninsured, as well as to continued uncertainty about the system's future, which has scared away paying patients.

"For five years, the county has created so much turmoil that they've made the losses inevitable," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's), who has supported Dimensions in the dispute.

In its lawsuit, Dimensions argues that Johnson has no legal right to withhold money that was formally included in the county budget and approved by the County Council. They say county officials attached no conditions to the money when they announced in April that they would stave off financial crisis in the system and keep it open through June 2008.

Johnson and council Chairman Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) contend it is the Dimensions board that has broken a promise to taxpayers. In exchange for a $5 million payment in February, the board agreed to restructure its membership if the system needed any more public support. Despite additional county payments, the board's membership remains unchanged.

Given the hospital system's precarious financial situation, state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's) said he prefers to keep the state money available to assist in a closure if necessary. "We're not going to let them take that $20 million," he said. The governor needs legislative approval before he can reclaim the money.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor no longer believes that money is needed to fund a hospital shutdown, given Johnson's April announcement that the county would keep the hospital running.

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.

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