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After 112 years, Takoma Park’s Washington Adventist Hospital departs for White Oak

The Adventist HealthCare White Oak Medical Center. (Tracey Brown/Adventist HealthCare)

Washington Adventist Hospital is moving from its birthplace in Takoma Park to a $400 million campus in White Oak on Sunday, ending more than a decade of protracted, sometimes contentious negotiations about the future of the 112-year-old institution.

Local officials say the relocation of the community hospital — its largest employer — will be a significant loss, particularly because the hospital has reneged on an earlier pledge to retain several key medical services in the Montgomery County suburb.

But hospital executives and Maryland state regulators say the move is a necessary sacrifice that will allow the institution to leave behind an outdated facility and adapt to changing regional health-care needs as well as broad industry pressures that have threatened the sustainability of hospitals nationwide.

“The county and state are very excited for it, but for us here, it’s a loss,” Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart said.

“You can hear about something for years, but you don’t believe it till you see it,” added Suzanne Ludlow, the city manager. “Now it’s happening, and good or bad, we’re all going to be affected.”

When the hospital was first opened by Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders in 1907, it served as a sanitarium for D.C. residents seeking an escape from the nation’s capital. But in the century since, physicians say, urban bustle has moved into and around Takoma Park, exerting pressure on its aging infrastructure.

It is common to find visitors wandering on the wrong floor of the hospital, which after years of ad hoc extensions, is organized like “a series of boxes held together by a series of corridors,” said Christopher Magee, an orthopedic surgeon.

The operating rooms are so small, he added, that during surgeries, nurses occasionally have to run out and around the corner to retrieve equipment that cannot be stored in the room because of a lack of space.

“I’ve had wonderful memories there, but to be honest with you, it’s kind of a relief to move,” Magee said.

The White Oak facility is more than twice as large as the one in Takoma Park, with 180 private rooms, compared with about 178 beds — about half in shared rooms — in the old hospital. The private rooms will not cost more than the shared ones in Takoma Park, Adventist representatives said.

More important, state regulators say, the new facility provides easier access to patients not just in Montgomery County, but also in neighboring Prince George’s County, which has been plagued for years by a shortage of high-quality health care. (A separate regional medical center is under construction about 20 miles away in Prince George’s County, in the Largo Town Center.)

Visitors to the Takoma Park hospital must travel through a narrow, two-lane road that offers little space to cars and emergency vehicles. The new facility, located six miles away, is just off Cherry Hill Road near Route 29, close to Interstate 95, and accessible by two public buses.

Ben Steffen, executive director of the Maryland Health Care Commission, an independent agency that approved Washington Adventist’s application to move, said state regulators “think long and hard about relocating a hospital,” but decided ultimately that this would allow more Maryland residents, and specifically those from Prince George’s, to access a high-quality general hospital.

When Washington Adventist Hospital first sought state approval to move in 2015, President Erik Wangsness pledged to retain “a robust array of health services” in Takoma Park, including a behavioral health unit that provides mental health care and a prenatal clinic serving women without health insurance.

But in 2018, hospital officials applied for state permission to move most of these services out of the city as well, leaving just an urgent-care facility. Local officials, who said at the time that they were “stunned and dismayed” by the news, protested the change to the Maryland Health Care Commission but were unsuccessful.

“We had to ensure that these services were sustainable long term, and part of that was to co-locate them with the acute care services in White Oak,” said Robert Jepson, the hospital’s vice president of business development. Leaving the stand-alone behavioral health unit in Takoma Park, he said, would have made it difficult for the hospital to receive full reimbursement from public and private insurers.

This decision is part of a larger trend, said Gerard Anderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hospital Finance and Management. In recent years, for-profit hospitals nationwide have worked to absorb smaller providers and consolidate market share with the aim of strengthening their negotiating power with large insurers.

In 2017, the consulting company Kaufman Hall recorded 115 transactions among hospitals and health systems in the United States, the highest since it began tracking the numbers in 2000.

Although Adventist HealthCare is a nonprofit network of providers, it is operating in an industry that includes strong financial incentives for providers to consolidate entities and services, Anderson said.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that there is a loss, but we have to do what we have to do,” Jepson said. “It’s unfortunate, but the challenge for any health-care organization now is how one sustains services in a changing environment.”

At 7 a.m. Sunday, the hospital, renamed Adventist HealthCare White Oak Medical Center, will close its emergency department and most services in Takoma Park.

Starting Monday, a 24/7 urgent-care facility will open at that location to treat minor illnesses such as the flu. Patients with more serious conditions such as chest pains or seizures should go to the emergency department at White Oak, or to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, officials said.

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