The Laurel area had no hospital 11 years ago when state health planners first approved plans for a 250-bed Parkway Medical Center. But who needed four?
"Utter mismanagement," Dr. Neil Solomon, the state's health secretary, declared when he discovered in 1974 that his planners had, in the previous three years, approved four hospitals near Laurel, all within 10 miles of each other.
Since 1979, however, three of the four hospitals have been built: Doctors' Hospital in Lanham as well as the Prince George's County-owned Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital and Bowie Hospital, both of which operate at well under capacity, health planners acknowledge.
Organizers of the fourth hospital, the proposed Parkway facility, which was the first of the four to be approved, are still struggling to get it built in an increasingly unreceptive atmosphere.
Parkway remains "a paper hospital with paper beds," a planner said. A gravel access road once built on the site is in disrepair, and on the land where foundation work was begun nearly 10 years ago, shrubbery has grown and an overturned car has been left to rust.
Four years after they approved the proposal, health planners began to realize there already were too many hospital beds in northern Prince George's County. Too many beds means existing hospitals cannot function profitably, they argued in the first of many attempts before state officials to block the facility set for the junction of Rte. 197 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
Last week, as a series of decertification hearings began before Maryland Planning and Development Agency director William B. Landis, they were at it again.
"We want them off the books," said Robert W. Sherwood Jr., director of the state-and federally funded Southern Maryland Health Systems Agency, which makes health planning recommendations to the state for a jurisdiction that includes Prince George's.
As long as Parkway exists, he said, even if it's only on paper, "there's a potential threat it could be built at the expense of other hospitals."
After the hearings are completed, probably next month, Landis must decide whether to renew Parkway's certification. If that decision is made before January, Parkway officials will be able to appeal to Health Secretary Charles R. Buck. If it is made later, regulation changes will mean the Parkway organizers' only recourse is to go to court, as they did to challenge a previous decertification effort.
Sherwood and other health planners said the 236-bed Greater Laurel hospital, six miles away from the undeveloped Parkway site, is set up to use only 150 beds and even then has an occupancy rate of 80 percent.
But the Parkway organization, headed by obstetrician Philip Rose, has refused to take "no" for an answer. The organization's original president, obstetrician J. Allen Offen, came under criticism in 1973 that he was seeking profit and didn't have the community's interests at heart. But after a meeting with then-governor Marvin Mandel, Mandel announced Offen had decided to make his hospital nonprofit. Offen also donated some of the land on which it was to be built. Rose, Offen's office partner, was named president of the nonprofit corporation.
When the Maryland state health planning agency refused to renew the hospital's certificiation in 1975, the hospital appealed to then health secretary Neil Solomon, who ruled in the hospital's favor.
But two years later, the health planning agency tried again to block the hospital, arguing the organizers had not made progress toward its creation, the plans were not supported by the community and the facility no longer was needed. This time Solomon supported the health planners. The organizers filed a lawsuit against the state in Baltimore City Court, where the state's position was overturned. Parkway was certified again.
Now, Parkway officials have another plan they hope will win them favor. Rose told Landis recently that his corporation has reached a "consolidation agreement" with Doctors' Hospital under which Parkway would agree to certificiation for only 150 beds if Doctors' is given another 100.
Doctors' Hospital president Dr. Leon Levitsky said his facility will apply for the 100 beds even if Parkway loses its certification.
Rose said if his hospital is recertified, he is willing to delay construction until health officials say the beds are needed.
In Laurel, citizens who 10 years ago were anxious to have a hospital built are now happy with what they have, Laurel Mayor Robert DiPitro said in an interview. While Laurel residents did not testify at last week's hearings, "I think you'll see an alarming number of people objecting" if Parkway's plans move forward, DiPitro said.
Years ago, Parkway had its supporters, he said, but now "the community has become very actively involved in Greater Laurel-Beltsville. There's a tremendous amount of involvement and just about every walk of life has taken up the hospital's cause."