Bill Pushes for State Takeover of Hospitals

By Philip Rucker and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 8, 2008

Frustrated that Prince George's County leaders have no solution for their hospital system's financial troubles, the county's legislative delegation introduced a bill yesterday that would transfer ownership of the system to a state authority.

Lawmakers had threatened a state takeover of the long-struggling hospital system if County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and the county council could not reach an agreement with the state. Johnson has been saying for weeks that a deal to transfer the county-owned system to a private hospital management company is in the works, but he has not disclosed details.

The legislation would transfer ownership of the hospital system, which is owned by the county and operated by the nonprofit Dimensions Health, to a state-controlled entity to be called the Prince George's County Hospital Authority.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said yesterday that he would back the bill. He said he is frustrated that Johnson, the council and the state have not reached consensus on the issue after years of negotiations.

"The continuing up and down serves no one well," Miller said. "If the county executive and county council can't move forward, rather than see the confidence in the Prince George's hospital [system] totally eroded, the Senate and House will move forward."

The takeover is designed to help stabilize the hospital system, which is composed of Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, Laurel Regional Hospital, the Bowie Health Campus and two nursing homes.

The system has been losing money for years, in part because many of the 180,000 patients it treats each year are uninsured.

Johnson spokesman John Erzen said the county executive hopes to announce his plan for the system soon but understands the need for the county's lawmakers to move ahead, provided they remain willing to consider his alternative when it is revealed.

"We're close," Erzen said. "There's always been an understanding that we really need to have something done by the end of this session, that it was something we couldn't drag out anymore."

Johnson has been negotiating with St. Louis-based Ascension Health, the nation's largest Catholic and nonprofit health chain, said Del. Barbara A. Frush (D), chairwoman of the Prince George's House delegation.

Ascension executives toured Prince George's facilities last summer. The company owns Providence Hospital in the District.

Erzen declined to comment on Ascension, saying that county leaders have signed confidentiality agreements. Ascension officials did not return calls for comment.

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