The opening of two new hospitals at opposite ends of Prince George's County will substantially increase the number of beds and services available to more than 250,000 people living in those areas.
The Southern Maryland Hospital Center, the privately owned, self-acclaimed "Big Daddy" of hospitals in southern Maryland, already has opened half of its proposed 300 beds and plans to be fully operational by early May.
The Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital, the second hospital to be built in a county-owned and -sponsored program of health care in Prince George's, is scheduled to open with 236 beds in early May.
The two hospitals will increase by more than half the number of beds available in the county at a time when the Southern Maryland Health Systems Agency (SMHSA) plan for Prince George's, St. Mary's, Charles and Calvert counties contends there is an oversupply of hospital beds in the area.
But supporters of each hospital, and of several others proposed for Prince George's within the next few years, say the new additions are vitally needed in each of their communities.
Southern Maryland, the brain child of Dr. Francis P. Chiaramonte, who is the designer, fundraiser, president and director of the hospital, is one of two hospitals south of Central Avenue, the other being the 33-bed Clinton Community Hospital on Branch Avenue.
Chiaramonte said he envisions his hospital, which has 200 physicians with hospital privileges and a 24-hour emergency room, as a "diagnostic enter on the scale of a Mayo Clinic.
"So far the three southern hospitals (in Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties) are pleased with our presence. They have referred patients with hoards of pathology for diagnosis.
"Wee see patients in advanced stages of disease because it has been too inconvenient for them to go to the District or Balitmore for diagnosis.
"By our presence we hope to see these (kinds of) cases earlier, so the morbidity and mortality rate in the southern end of Maryland will be reduced. We're dealing with tough old country people here."
Chiaramonte said he designed his hospital, which is on Surratts Raod in Clinton, with country people in mind. The admitting room in the hospital entrance is filled with soft, leather-cushioned chairs and small Chinese-style rugs - a fireplace had been planned but no money was available.
"I hate that hospital feeling. It's unnerving for most patients. I like it being an informal, friendly place, with old-fashioned nursing at bed sites. In some areas there will be no aides, no technicians; you have a nurse when you come in and she is yours for the stay."
Chiaramonte is fiercely proud of his hospital - as proud of it as County Executive Winfield Kelly is about "his," the Laurel Hospital.
The facility was begun in 1970 when the state appointed the Laurel Hospital Authority, and the group of citizens who worked over the years to see the hospital built are the winners in a race against another physicians group to build the first full-service medical facility in the Laurel area.
"This hospital wouldn't have happened without the support of the community," said Lissa Vogt, a Laurel hospital spokesman and head of the volunteer services. And although the county paid more than $20 million to build the facility, Vogt said, "this is really a community hospital. We have had over 300 people volunteer for programs and 69 families have each donated $1,500 to sponsor patients rooms."
In all, more than $300,000 has been donated to the hospital, Vogt said.
The hospital, which sits on the site of a former sand and gravel pit along Contee Road, will provide short-term medical and mental health care with more than 300 physicians receiving privileges to attend patients there.
Remarkably futuristic in design, the hospital was also planned to provide space for community health facilities. A rape crisis center and drug and alcoholic rehabilitation areas are part of the community out-reach program for the hospital.
"At private hospitals, they will do those things that are profitable and avoid those that are not profitable," said Samuel Wynkoop, Kelly's deputy administrative officer for hospitals.
"Kelly's thrust is to try to encourage private hospitals to participate (in health care) for cost-containment purposes, but there are those programs which will always have to come from the public sector," said Wynkoop.
But the differences between the private and public ownership of the two hospitals narrowed when the two groups had to find the money to build them. Each found the road from inception and design to the actual laying of bricks long and expensive.
In 1972 Chiaramonte first obtained money to build his hospital from a Department of Health, Education and Welfare mortgage program. But members of the Clinton Community Hospital took him at HEW to the U.S. Supreme Court over HEW's right to give money to a private facility.
Chiaramonte said the Clinton Hospital had intentions of expanding its own hospital and was not eager for competition - so much so that two hospital officials and their attorney were indicted in 1974 for conspiring to break into Chiaramonte's office. The charges were later dismissed but Chiaramonte still contends they planted a "spy" in his office. "She was the best secretary I've ever had," said Chiaramonte last week. "It was too bad."
Chiaramonte then tried to give the hospital to the nearby town of Morningside to make it eligible for funding through municipal bonds "but the bond advisers said there was no market due to the recession we were having. After three filing cabinets full of stuff and no going home on nights and weekends, after 18 months we were still stuck."
In 1975 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Chiaramonte's favor and he finally received a loan guarantee for his $22-million hospital. "But we still needed $3 million.
"I had really had it. The county wanted the hospital now and was pressing me to the wall to turn it over to them. I told them that if I couldn't get the money within three months, I'd give it to them. And I finally got it."
The hospital finally opened last November - seven years after Chiaramonte first received his certificate to build it.
The Laurel hospital has taken even longer. When the state gave the Laurel Hospital Authority its certificate, it also granted one to Dr. Arnold Offen to build a private hospital two miles away. Citizens groups in support of first one, then the other finality, sprang up and it was a race to see who could come up with the funds first.
Finally in 1974 the authority agreed to turn over its certificate to the county when residents approve a $20-million bond issue. The responsibility to finally build the community-oriented hospital "was ominous," Kelly said. "We really had to build the hospital and do it well."
But it looked like another hitch in funding would delay the opening when Kelly withheld $3 million in operating money because of "budget constraints" last year. The county eventually came up with the cash and, as soon as the beds and other equipment arrive, the hospital will open its door.
Several other citizens groups and physicians who have wanted to construct their own hospitals in the county have experienced similar delays. The Fort Washington Health Care Center as well as the still-struggling Parkway Hospital group are both in court over their requests for state certificates allowing them to build their hospitals.
The SMHSA proposal released last week, which would limit the number of future hospital beds in the county, could effect their status. "Fortunately for us," said Wynkoop, "Southern Maryland and Laurel are already built."