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State delays Western Maryland Hospital Center privatization vote

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford at a committee meeting with the Board of Public Works in 2015. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

State officials on Wednesday delayed voting on multimillion dollar contracts to privatize care at Western Maryland Hospital Center, a chronic-care facility in Hagerstown, citing the need for more information amid mounting opposition from unions and lawmakers.

At issue for the powerful three-member Board of Public works was whether to approve outsourcing up to $128 million in skilled nursing, long-term acute care and brain injury services before a vendor was selected, an accelerated timeline that critics of the contracts say term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan wants locked in before he leaves office.

Union officials and legislators this week said outsourcing care would jeopardize the 43 patients currently admitted and about 200 staff, and hasten the closure of the hospital, while acknowledging that the facility is old and costly to maintain. A spokesman for Hogan (R) has said outsourcing care to community providers is part of the administration’s master plan. State officials revived discussions about Western’s future, shelved in 2016, amid staffing shortages fueled by the pandemic.

Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) said he objected to executing contracts that do not identify a vendor, especially given the public outcry.

“There’s a lot of interest in this issue, and people want to make sure we’re doing the absolute best we can for the heavily affected patients, albeit a somewhat small number,” he said during the meeting.

Secretary of Health Dennis R. Schrader detailed the hospital’s heating and cooling deficiencies, including a World War II-era boiler that requires an operating engineer and custom parts. He added that 38 of 43 patients are nursing home patients, and said it would take six to eight years to demolish Western Maryland Hospital Center and build a nursing home, as some have suggested.

“We’re worried about the patients there now who are fragile,” he said.

Of the 11 state hospitals, the two chronic-care facilities, Western Maryland Hospital Center and Deer’s Head Hospital Center in Salisbury, ranked poor overall on infrastructure in the facilities report cited by the administration.

State officials plan to accept proposals until Oct. 21, recommend a vendor and return to the Board of Public Works — which is composed of the governor, comptroller and treasurer — in late November or early December, Schrader said.

By then, voters will have elected a governor to replace Hogan, who is exploring a run for president in 2024. Two of three Democrats who would make up the majority of the board if elected — gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore and comptroller candidate Del. Brooke E. Lierman — have said they oppose privatizing services and, if elected, would attempt to reverse any contracts approved under the Hogan administration.

Patrick Moran — president of AFSCME Council 3, which represents licensed practical nurses, direct-care aides, dietary staff, and maintenance and clerical staff — praised the decision to postpone the contracts.

“Instead of providing WMHC with the funds and resources it deserves, Gov. Hogan’s administration has repeatedly used preposterous arguments and scare tactics as excuses to close the hospital even though other oversight bodies see no reason to pull the hospital’s accreditation,” he said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), whose district includes Hagerstown, in March wrote a letter to state legislators opposing the closure of the hospital. He said the number of people over 65 in Western Maryland is projected to grow 46 percent by 2045, increasing the need for specialized care.

Del. Kirill Reznik, (D-Montgomery County) questioned why Hogan would push the contracts in the final months of his administration.

“It is unnecessary, frankly. I think it hurts the patients who are being seen at those facilities,” he said in an interview Wednesday, calling the contracts Hogan’s effort “to get the last bit of privatization in before he goes off into the sunset and spends more time in Ohio and New Hampshire.”

Del. Mike McKay, (R-Allegheny County), whose district includes the hospital, said he is open to a private company providing services but called for more transparency and community involvement before those plans move forward.

McKay said the hospital provides specialized care that means western Maryland residents don’t have to travel to Salisbury, Baltimore or D.C. He said he also worried about employees who have not been given the chance to ask about their job security and retirement and health care benefits.

“There’s no doubt about it, the building has aged, but I’m concerned about the 100-plus jobs that are recession-proof jobs,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “We need to pump the breaks. We have a new administration coming in … Another set of eyes on this particular closure may be best.”

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford attended the meeting Wednesday for Hogan, who was marking the opening of a bridge in Southern Maryland.

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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