Pr. George's Hospitals Get Relief, Not a Cure

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 7, 2008

The Maryland General Assembly has passed emergency legislation intended to provide long-term stability for the ailing Prince George's County hospital system. But the legislative achievement is only the first step in what is likely to be a long, arduous and possibly unsuccessful effort to put the system on more solid footing.

The bill envisions a series of steps county and state leaders must take cooperatively within days and months of its signing by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), which could happen this week.

Agreements might prove difficult, however, particularly since county and state leaders have tussled in recent days over the legislation, jousting that follows years of similar arguments over control and direction of the hospital system.

Several of the county's eight senators expressed reservations about the bill on the floor of the Senate, with six voting for unsuccessful last-minute amendments. Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D) ultimately voted against the bill. His daughter, Camille Exum (D), is a key member of the Prince George's County Council, whose participation will be necessary in the process outlined in the legislation.

Of particular concern to senators was a mandate in the bill that county and state leaders agree to a long-term funding plan for the financially troubled system within 60 days. Otherwise, the county and the state might be released from the obligation to provide interim funding for the next two years to keep the system running.

Neither County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) nor council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) have said publicly whether they support the legislation.

The system serves 180,000 patients each year. Its centerpiece is Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, the state's second-busiest trauma center.

The system's land and buildings are owned by Prince George's County, but it is managed by the nonprofit Dimensions Health. The system has lost money for years, in part because many of its patients are poor and uninsured and because of perpetual uncertainty about its long-term viability.

In a February news conference, Johnson and Dean joined O'Malley to announce they had agreed to a "framework" for the system's future.

According to that deal, the state and county would each pay $12 million annually for the next two years to keep the system open while a new seven-member hospital authority conducts an open, transparent bidding process to find hospital companies interested in taking over ownership from the county and management from Dimensions.

To entice new management, the county and state would agree to pledge public funds in future years to help operate the system and provide capital for modern facilities. New owners, they hope, could at last stem the losses at the system, which also includes Laurel Regional Hospital, Bowie Health Center and two nursing facilities.

But since February, the county and state have been unable to agree on certain key details in the legislation intended to make the agreement a reality. County leaders proposed more than 20 amendments to the bill, but only some were accepted.

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