Lawmakers Might Use Clout to Get Hospital Funding

By Ovetta Wiggins and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 3, 2007

Some members of the Prince George's legislative delegation are trying to organize an effort to use their votes on Gov. Martin O'Malley's tax package as leverage to get a funding plan for the financially troubled Prince George's Hospital Center passed during the current special session.

O'Malley (D) called the special session, which began Monday, to deal with a projected shortfall of at least $1.5 billion in the budget. Among other things, the governor has proposed increasing the sales tax and overhauling the personal income tax structure.

"If we are going to do anything, we have to use our clout now," said Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Prince George's), chairwoman of the House delegation. "This is the time they will need our votes to move the tax package forward."

It was unclear yesterday how many of the county's 31 members in the House and Senate have agreed to vote against the governor's tax package unless there is an agreement on hospital funding.

Frush and Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Prince George's) said yesterday that they are working with county leaders on a plan to present to O'Malley on Dimensions Healthcare System, the nonprofit group that operates Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, Laurel Regional Hospital, Bowie Health Center and two nursing homes.

Neither Frush nor Britt would provide details about the proposal, saying that it needed to be fleshed out. They also would not say how they propose that the funding be considered during the special session. Some lawmakers have said that either the governor's health-care reform bill or his proposal to raise the tobacco tax could be amended.

O'Malley's spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese, said, "The governor has not seen anything in writing" that shows the county has come to an agreement on a hospital funding plan.

Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's), who introduced a bill this week to deal with the hospital system, said county lawmakers are in a uniquely powerful position to negotiate a generous deal with the state. The governor will likely need the votes from Prince George's to get his tax package passed, Niemann said.

"If they want us, on behalf of our constituents, to bail the state out of its structural deficit, we need help in solving the problem with our hospital," he said. "If you think of it as being a negotiation, we have more leverage at this time than we will after January."

Frush met with Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) yesterday. His office said the discussion centered on Niemann's bill, which would create a state authority to take over operation of the health-care system.

Niemann said there is not yet agreement about what exactly the county should ask of the governor, calling it "still a matter of discussion and debate."

But Frush said during a delegation meeting yesterday that the County Council and an aide from the county executive's office are scheduled to meet Monday to discuss a possible plan.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) is also scheduled to meet with employees at Laurel Regional Hospital on Monday.

In most recent public comments on the hospital situation -- at Prince George's Hospital Center two weeks ago -- Johnson said he thought that a deal with the state fell through in the spring because of the failure of local leaders to go to Annapolis with a common vision. He claimed that officials were meeting behind closed doors and promised that this year would be different.

Niemann's proposal would allow the governor to set up an authority to devise a long-term plan for the hospital system. The authority would be charged with negotiating with management companies interested in taking over the system. It also would acquire the system's property and assume its bond debt and pension liability.

Under the bill, the county would give $17 million to the hospital system each fiscal year from 2009 to 2015. The state would provide $23 million each year for operating and capital costs from 2010 to 2015.

Niemann offered a bill to create an authority during this year's regular session, but the measure failed because the County Council did not support it.

"I'm not prepared to support anything [at the session] unless there's the solution on the hospital," Niemann said.

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