County Executive Lawrence Hogan's year-long effort to remove Prince George's County from the hospital business ended in failure yesterday as the County Council postponed indefinitely his plan to lease county hospitals to a private management company.
The council's 7-to-3 vote came after lengthy, often-heated discussion and was applauded by representatives of citizens' groups that had feared the lease plan would mean reductions in hospital care for the poor and elderly.
"So, they did me in," Hogan said to reporters after the vote. "I'm disappointed, and I really think it's a sad day for the taxpayers of Prince George's County."
But he added that he probably would not push to reintroduce the legislation. "I have a lot of things to do without beating my head against the wall. I think my successor, whoever she or he will be, will try to lease the hospitals or close them," said Hogan, who intends to run for the U.S. Senate next year rather than seek reelection to his county post.
Although Hogan said he was surprised by the vote, council members have registered objections to the lease since he sent it to them for approval in early September. Some members opposed provisions in the lease that would have banned abortions in the county's three hospitals. Others objected to what they saw as inadequate economic protection for the county in the lease.
Moreover, senior citizens groups opposed the lease entirely, saying that a profit-making corporation would restrict the quality of care for the poor and elderly. In the last several days, those groups carried on an intensive telephone lobbying campaign against the lease.
Last week Hogan indicated he would be willing to renegotiate aspects of the lease, including the abortion ban, to meet council members' objections, but the council rejected that overture in yesterday's vote.
The action represented a setback not only to Hogan but also to Council Chairman Parris Glendening. Glendening tried unsuccessfully to persuade his colleagues to delay action on the lease until they had attempted to remedy their objections by negotiating with Hogan and Hospital Corporation of America, the private management firm.
"Several people who have taken the most interest in this feel that a lease agreement simply would not work," he said yesterday. "In some cases, I think it's simply an anti-Hogan bias.
"But others feel that no compromise will ever be worked out," he added, because council members do not believe they have the expertise or the resources to properly renegotiate the lease.
The sometimes heated discussion over yesterday's vote reflected those divergent views. Before postponing action on the lease itself, the council approved a letter to Hogan describing members' objections to the proposal. Drafted by Ann Lombardi, the council's liaison to the County Hospital Commission, the letter criticized specific provisions of the lease, and suggested that Hogan form a group to study the idea of creating an independent authority to manage the hospitals.
"Even if you were able to renegotiate the lease to provide for the concerns mentioned above, it would appear that a majority of the council would feel compelled to reject a leasing arrangement," the letter said. "Of major concern is the philosophical basis upon which the county hospital system was established."
Council member Gerard McDonough won applause from the crowd of mostly senior citizens at yesterday's meeting when he said, "Philosophically, I just can't believe that after all these years of public control that we as an executive or a council have the right to mortgage our investment in the health care of our citizens."
A spokesman for HCA said his company is willing to review any options that might remain for managing the county hospitals. "We're basically disappointed but we're also very much open to looking at anything that would be open to us," said Victor Campbell, a vice president for communications, "We're definitely not bitter and we'll hear out anything that anybody might want to offer us."