Curing Hospital's Ills Tops Legislators' Agenda

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

Prince George's legislative leaders return to Annapolis this month, pledging that a long-term solution for the county's troubled hospital system is at the top of their priority list.

It's a refrain heard repeatedly in recent years, as lawmakers have decamped to the capital each year promising this will be the year to get a fix for Prince George's Hospital Center and the other county facilities managed by nonprofit Dimensions Health. The hospital system has been losing money and on the edge of closure for years.

Last year, a deal between state and local leaders on a plan to create a hospital authority that would take over from Dimensions fell apart on the final day of the session.

But lawmakers start work Wednesday with a powerful incentive on the table: $50 million in state money that the General Assembly agreed during the autumn special session to reserve for the hospital system. The money will flow only if local and state leaders formally agree to a long-term solution for the system or if the legislature passes a bill that provides a new future.

Quiet meetings have taken place since the special session in the hope of avoiding last year's dissension, when the $329 million deal fell apart. Now, Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's) is calling for the County Council and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) to develop a plan first, in conjunction with Dimensions, and bring it to state leaders for their consideration.

"Until that happens, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to try to accomplish anything at the state level," he said. "If we go in with the county leading . . . I know the chances of success will be greater."

In addition to the Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, the system includes the Bowie Health Campus, the Laurel Regional Hospital and two nursing homes. Hospital land and buildings are owned by the county and leased for $1 a year to Dimensions, which operates the facilities.

Politicians have said for years they believe the key to righting the system is to phase out the county's role in the system, replace Dimensions with a financially stable hospital owner and provide additional resources for hospital upgrades that could turn aging facilities that serve mostly the poor and uninsured into state-of-the-art facilities that could also draw paying customers.

But hammering out the details on how to achieve that vision, including how much the state and county each should contribute and what should happen to the hospital system's land, has bedeviled elected leaders for years.

This year, two delegates have filed bills for consideration on the hospital issue. One proposal, sponsored by Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's), would create a five-member hospital authority whose members would be appointed by the governor. The authority would take over from Dimensions and manage the system. It also would have the ability to take over the hospital land and buildings.

The authority would also be directed to negotiate with other hospital companies interested in buying the system -- companies that could infuse new cash and energy into it. And the authority would collect grants from both the state and the county, intended to prop up the institution and make it attractive to a new company.

Under Niemann's plan, the state would contribute $161 million over the next seven years in operating cash and capital improvements, while the county would give the new hospital authority $114 million.

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