Lawmakers Suggest a Bailout Alternative

County Executive Jack B. Johnson said he was happy that legislators
County Executive Jack B. Johnson said he was happy that legislators "want to use their leverage to make sure we get some resources from the state." (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Ovetta Wiggins And Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Prince George's County legislative delegation revealed details yesterday about a $125 million bailout proposal for the county's hospital system that it wants Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to support during the current special session.

The proposal calls for the county to pay $50 million over three years to help keep the hospital system afloat. The balance, $75 million, would be paid by the state. Under the plan, the county would maintain ownership of the land where the hospitals and nursing homes are located.

O'Malley called the special legislative session to address a potential budget shortfall of at least $1.5 billion, but Prince George's lawmakers see it as an opportunity to press for help for Dimensions Healthcare System, the financially troubled nonprofit group that operates Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, Laurel Regional Hospital, Bowie Health Center and two nursing homes.

Some members of the delegation said last week that they will use their votes on O'Malley's proposed tax package as leverage to get a hospital funding plan.

"I hope as a delegation we will stick together until this problem is solved," said Barbara A. Frush (D), chairman of the county's House delegation. "This is the point in time where we as a delegation will be able to use our clout."

Frush asked the 22 members of the House delegation to say they are "noncommittal" on the governor's tax plan as negotiations move forward.

She said yesterday that the proposal was the product of several meetings among members of the county House and Senate delegations, County Council members and a representative from the county executive's office.

Frush said she mentioned the plan Friday to Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who has been the governor's point person on the issue. Brown said yesterday that the governor is "willing to continue discussions with the county about long-term solutions."

He said the governor's office has not received a written proposal from the County Council and the county executive's office since April, when the governor proposed setting up an authority to devise a long-term plan for the hospital system. The authority would have negotiated with management companies interested in taking over the system. It also would have acquired the system's property and assumed its bond debt and pension liability.

Meanwhile, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) met yesterday morning with employees at Laurel Regional Hospital, saying he endorsed the governor's plan in the spring only reluctantly and remains unsure whether it would have worked as a long-term solution to the hospital system's troubles.

"There were a lot of problems with the plan," he said.

In an interview, Johnson said he was pleased to hear that state lawmakers wanted to get a better deal for the county. He said discussions are ongoing but acknowledged that he did not "know if everybody's onboard now with a single vision."

"I'm excited to hear they want to use their leverage to make sure we get some resources from the state," he said.

But he would not say what he believed the lawmakers should use their voting power to get, other than a funding stream.

"It's going to be tough to get everything settled in such a short time," he said.

Johnson also indicated that he plans to release up to $3 million in county funds to the system by the end of the week.

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