Prince George's Late With Payment to Support Hospital System

Prince George's health-care workers protest outside County Executive Jack B. Johnson's office after the county did not make a $3 million support payment.
Prince George's health-care workers protest outside County Executive Jack B. Johnson's office after the county did not make a $3 million support payment. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

Following a protest by Prince George's hospital system workers over the county's decision to withhold $3 million from the system, a county spokesman said Thursday that it will be getting a payment later this month -- of $2 million.

Last year, the county entered into an agreement with the state for each to pay $12 million annually for two years to prop up the hospital system while bidders are sought to buy it. But after the state recently cut almost $23 million in aid to the county, Prince George's officials announced several planned measures to close the budget gap left behind, including a trim of $3 million from the hospital budget.

The county did not make its scheduled quarterly payment Oct. 1, and about 35 hospital workers -- armed with signs reading "Keep Your Promises!" and "Save Our Hospital" -- to protest outside County Executive Jack B. Johnson's office Thursday.

Later Thursday, Johnson's spokesman, John Erzen, said the payment would not be missed entirely. He said the county would pay $2 million and that two payments after that would also be short by $1 million, which would spread the $3 million cut over many months to lessen its impact.

Erzen said the decision to spread out the cut was made prior to the demonstration, but protesters sought to take credit for the announcement that at least some of the money was on its way.

"The workers and the patients prevailed today, and our voices were heard," said Stacey Mink, spokeswoman for 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. "Two million is good, but the commitment still isn't fully met, and we will continue to advocate for the full committed amount of $3 million."

Erzen said the cutback was necessary given the bleak financial situation the county is facing.

"Nobody wants to be in this position," said Erzen, noting that the county had instituted a hiring freeze, two rounds of furloughs for workers and other trims before cutting funding to the hospital. The county also recently began its first round of layoffs since the recession began.

"It would be outrageous for someone to suggest that the Johnson administration is in any way turning its back on the hospital system," Erzen added. "The Johnson administration has provided more resources to the hospital system than all the previous administrations combined."

On Thursday, lab techs, housekeepers, dietary workers and other caregivers chanted outside the County Administration Building to demand the money. They said Johnson should tap the county's $182 million rainy-day fund rather than cut hospital funding, a move Johnson has said would be fiscally irresponsible.

Trecetia Campbell, 59, a laboratory technical assistant at Laurel Regional Hospital, said the money is needed now.

"We need new equipment," said Campbell, of Laurel, who has worked there almost 23 years. "In my lab, we need new refrigerators to keep the specimens. . . . They're always breaking down."

The hospital network is owned by the county and operated by the nonprofit Dimensions Healthcare System. It includes Prince George's Hospital Center, Laurel Regional Hospital, Bowie Health Campus and two nursing homes, and it serves 180,000 patients a year, many poor and uninsured. Its reputation as a system in distress has driven away many privately insured patients who could help stem financial losses.

The task of finding a buyer for the hospital falls to the Prince George's Hospital Authority, a body formed through state legislation last year. The authority was expected to announce a list of bidders Friday but has posted a notice on its Web site saying that announcement will be delayed.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), declined to comment on Johnson's decision to cut funding but said the state plans to continue with its full $3 million payments.

"The state of Maryland has an agreement with Prince George's County, and the governor intends to honor that agreement," Abbruzzese said.

Union officials said they will air radio ads over the next week on six stations to call on Johnson to fully fund the hospital network.

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