Like a sick patient with a recurring pain that won't go away, the county's financially troubled hospital system is once again on the operating table, but nobody's sure exactly which medicine to use.

Since 1982, Dimensions Healthcare, a nonprofit corporation, has been running the system, which serves about 200,000 people each year, including 80 percent of the county's poorest. But the county has retained ownership of all facilities: 284-bed Prince George's Hospital Center, Laurel Regional Hospital, Bowie Health Campus, two nursing homes and an assisted living facility.

The system has been losing lots of money -- $45.8 million over the past three years and $2.7 million so far this year -- and Dimensions has been looking for both a buyer and a handout. This week, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) pledged an immediate infusion of $3 million, freeing up $2 million more in matching state funds -- admittedly a Band-Aid on a major wound.

Next up: Dimensions, which has been sifting through a diminishing pile of acquisition offers, will recommend one in March to Johnson and the council, which must approve any deal. County officials have been reluctant to relinquish ownership, at least to Dimensions, but there is agreement that the system can't survive without a massive cash transfusion the county is unable to provide.

Johnson's move came as state lawmakers in Annapolis expressed unhappiness with the county's level of support for the hospital system.

Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D) expressed concern "about the model of management," which he called "benign neglect . . . The hospital is going down the tubes now. What's the plan?"

Johnson's New Best Friends

Patrick Ricker, a longtime Prince George's developer, spent much of last year encouraging his pals in the business community to contribute money to M.H. "Jim" Estepp's campaign for county executive.

But Estepp (D) lost, and now Ricker is working feverishly to make new friends in high places. On Monday, he hosted a $500-a-head fundraiser for the man who won Prince George's crown last year, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D).

And whom did Ricker invite? The same friends whom he had encouraged to support Estepp.

What accounts for the developer's change of heart?

"I made a mistake. I'm the prodigal son, and I've come home," Ricker said, as guests mingled and feasted on shrimp at Jerry's Seafood, his father-in-law's Lanham-based restaurant. "I've always liked Jack. Every time I've called him for help, he was there. Jack's a good man."

So why did he support Estepp?

"That was business," Ricker said, smiling before slipping away to greet old friends.

Ricker was not the only one in the room professing newfound love for Johnson, who won the election with minimal support from developers and the business community.

There was Frank Lucente, the owner of Chesapeake Custom Homes, who gave nearly $4,000 to Estepp's campaign. There was prominent zoning lawyer Larry Taub, who gave Estepp $900 before ponying up $250 for Johnson after the Democratic primary. And there was developer Jeffrey Caruso, who gave Estepp $1,500.

Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) was an enthusiastic Estepp supporter and took more than a few rhetorical shots at Johnson last year.

Assessing Johnson's record as state's attorney, Hendershot once told a reporter, "I've heard some judges and lawyers say that criminals go out of their way to commit crimes in Prince George's County because they know they can get away with it."

The remark infuriated Johnson at the time, but you would never have known it watching him chortle as Hendershot introduced himself to the crowd at the fundraiser as "one of Jack Johnson's new best friends."

"I'm going to stop working against Jack Johnson," Hendershot promised.

The Johnson converts at the fundraiser also included Thomas McEachin, the head of the county's firefighters' union who was among Estepp's most visible and vigorous supporters.

"Jack's here, and I wish him all the luck," McEachin said, explaining his attendance. "When he does well, we all do well."

If some of the guests appeared a bit bashful about explaining their new allegiance, Ricker was unapologetic.

He walked over to a table and showed off a Manila envelope stuffed with checks from his guests to Johnson's campaign committee.

The woman watching over the loot told Ricker that they had so far raised $30,000, and people were still drifting through the door.

"And I got another $25,000 [in checks] at home," Ricker said.

Ricker's record for picking winners is less than stellar. But his appetite for redemption is boundless.

During last year's governor's race, he stood firmly behind Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D). Now he's promising to throw a fundraiser for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

In 1994, Ricker helped engineer Sue V. Mills's unsuccessful campaign for county executive. Then Ricker spent the next eight years trying to win over the man who won that election, Wayne K. Curry.

Once, Ricker ran into Curry at an airport terminal in Chicago, and offered to carry the county executive's two suitcases. "Let me tell you, they were heavy bags," Ricker said, laughing. "I'll carry Jack's bags anywhere."

A 'New Day' For Police?

Johnson drew the enmity of the county's police union during last year's campaign by promising to reform the police force, which has been tarnished in recent years by allegations of brutality.

During a speech last week to black and Latino police officers, Johnson praised the officers and seemed to suggest that they are not responsible for the department's reputation.

"You are the first generation of police officers that are of the community," Johnson said at a Langley Park awards banquet sponsored by the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association and the Professional Black Peace Officers Coalition.

"The community is depending on you to make sure that the 14th Amendment [protecting individual civil liberties] is a living document," Johnson said. "We need people like you who are going to change the paradigm. The reputation we've been living with is not a reputation you created. It's like living in a house with a ghost. It's a new day with new officers rooted in the community."

Johnson said black and Latino officers would be given opportunities to work in specialized units, such as narcotics or homicide, which would allow them to obtain "the promotions you deserve."

Though the number of black and Latino officers has grown in recent years, few have been promoted to specialized units. Many black and Latino officers complain that they have been shut out of getting those assignments.

Riddick Now a Lobbyist

Major F. Riddick thought he was going to succeed Curry as county executive.

Then his campaign bombed.

Now Riddick, who spent three decades working in state and local government, is building a new career as a lobbyist.

His clients include the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which is paying him $250 an hour to represent the utility during the Maryland General Assembly's legislative session.

Riddick is well-versed in Annapolis-speak, having served for seven years as chief of staff to former governor Parris N. Glendening. He also has a long-standing relationship with WSSC's general manager, John Griffin, a former agency head in the Glendening administration.

Liz Kolinowski, a WSSC spokesperson, said Griffin hired Riddick "because he certainly knows his way around Annapolis. He knows our services and is very familiar with many of our constituent issues."

Riddick said he's enjoying his new career, though he declined to detail the size of his practice, except to say that he's representing clients in seven states.

"I'm busy, I'm traveling," he said. "I get to help government, but I get paid more helping my clients."