Officials Huddle Over Hospitals' Financial Problems

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says the state and Prince George's must be
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says the state and Prince George's must be "partners." (By Rob Carr -- Associated Press)
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By Philip Rucker and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 11, 2008

State lawmakers, Prince George's officials and the Maryland governor's office have been negotiating this week toward a long-sought solution to the county hospital system's financial troubles, and legislative leaders are warning of a state takeover if they cannot find consensus by the end of the new General Assembly session.

Leading lawmakers, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), said yesterday that if no agreement is reached, they would back legislation to transfer ownership of the system to an independent authority set up by the state.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) met separately Wednesday with Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Miller and later sent a letter to the county's legislative delegation indicating that Johnson anticipates putting forth a hospital plan within the next two weeks.

"I'm convinced that we'll have a comprehensive plan that the state will buy into," Johnson said in an interview. He was expected to discuss the hospital system with Prince George's lawmakers over breakfast this morning.

O'Malley said he told Johnson that his administration is "committed to resolving this."

"We talked about the need to get this done," O'Malley said.

Although Miller and Prince George's lawmakers said they would prefer consensus, they now consider a state takeover a viable alternative. Under such a plan, the hospital system, owned by the county and operated by the nonprofit Dimensions Health, would be transferred to an independent authority.

Dimensions runs Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, Laurel Regional Hospital, Bowie Health Center and two nursing homes.

A takeover could help stabilize the hospital system before transferring it to private ownership, lawmakers said. It serves about 180,000 patients a year, many of them uninsured.

"This needs to be a private enterprise with the state and county assisting to make a private enterprise position viable," Miller said. "We need to be partners to solve this problem, not adversaries."

But a state-legislated transfer probably would involve seizing the land, a prospect lawmakers fear would exacerbate tensions between the county and the state.

"Land would be transferred as part of the deal," Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's) said.

Del. Barbara A. Frush (D), chairman of the Prince George's delegation, said the state is trying to "play nice" with the county because a takeover is "not a good way to do business."

"But in the end, the most important thing is to make sure that we have the appropriate health system for our communities, and whatever it takes to do that we intend to do," Frush said.

During the special session in November, the General Assembly reserved $50 million for the hospital system. But that money will be available only if local and state leaders formally agree to a long-term solution for the system or if the legislature passes a bill that addresses the hospitals' problems.

Miller said a recent change in leadership on the County Council has improved relations, potentially averting a recurrence of last year's dissension, when a $329 million deal on the system fell apart in the 11th hour.

The council's chairman, David Harrington (D-Cheverly), said there is serious "movement toward consensus," although financial details have not been determined. Harrington recently succeeded council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) as chairman.

"Obviously, with something on this grand a scale and this level of complexity, the outcome will depend on the details," Harrington said.

He said talk of a state takeover is "premature."

"Those kinds of conversation -- if this doesn't happen, then we'll take action -- it does not speak to what I think the conversation should be about, and that's health care in Prince George's County," Harrington said.

Johnson has said repeatedly that he has continued to carry on negotiations with hospital management companies that might be interested in taking over from Dimensions. In August, executives with Providence Hospital confirmed they had toured Prince George's facilities.

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.

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