Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan has abandoned a major part of his effort to block abortions in county hospitals.
Hogan insisted for months that a proposal to lease the county's hospitals to Hospital Corporation of America, a private hospital management firm, include a ban on abortions in the county facilities. But County Council Chairman Parris Glendening said yesterday Hogan agreed to "delete" the antiabortion clause after Glendening told him a majority of the council would defeat the lease because of the provision.
Hogan says "delete" is too strong a word, but acknowledged he will concur with any changes HCA is willing to approve. "This matter turning the hospitals over to private managers is enormously important to the county," he said. "I would be amenable to any changes."
An executive of the hospital chain said his firm is "ready, willing and able" to drop the antiabortion clause, and will rewrite other sections of the lease as well.
"We as a company believe what we do with termination of pregnancies is a matter determined jointly between the patient and her doctor," said William White, HCA's vice-president for acquisitions. He pointed out that his firm thought the ban was unconstitutional and wrote the lease to require the county to defend it if lawsuits contesting it were filed.
Hogan said he inserted the clause despite its potential for blocking the lease because of his strong feelings against abortion. He tried earlier through an executive order to ban abortions at county facilities, but a judge overturned the ban, saying Hogan had exceeded his authority. Hogan appealed the decision, and that case is still pending.
Hogan's change of heart on the abortion issue removes a major roadblock for the hospital lease, a contract he has worked for three years to arrange, but it does not guarantee its approval.
Following an animated public hearing last week, council members indicated opposition to the lease because of two major issues in addition to the abortion question. They expressed concern about loss of public control over the facilities and fears about possible future restrictions on treatment for elderly and poor patients.
"There are no council members willing to support the lease as currently written," said chairman Glendening, who said meetings would be scheduled with the Tennessee-based hospital chain to try to write a better lease. The contract needs more detailed protection of low-profit hospital services, like care of the poor, and requirements for "elected officials to maintain control," according to Glendening.
HCA's White said his company is ready to meet all the council's concerns. "We believe that protections are there in the lease for the indigent, aged and local control," he said. "However, we're willing to amplify this to gain further support."
Despite the differences between Hogan and the council on elements of the lease, debating it has brought them into agreement that the hospitals cannot continue to be run solely by public boards.
If a new lease cannot be agreed on, the council would like to see a nonprofit hospital authority take charge, Glendening said, or allow a private firm to manage, rather than lease, the facilities.
"We agree the current situation can't stand," he said. "We think HCA is willing to be quite flexible and if we get enough revisions, a lease may be signed."
This is not welcome news for several citizens' groups who want the hospitals to remain in county hands.
"We're pleased the council is leaning our way," said Dorothy McNeill, 69, chairman of the Hospital Emergency Action League, a Prince George's senior citizens group. "But we still don't want any kind of lease."
White said his firm would not be interested in simply managing the facilities. "We had experience with that and it's extremely difficult to deal with all the politics," he said, referring to the firm's year-long management of one of the three Prince George's facilities, the Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital, in 1979.
Some resolution will be made before the end of the year, Glendening said.