State delegates from Prince George’s County gathered Friday morning as they do every week — only this time, the doors were closed.
An aide stationed outside made sure that only lawmakers entered, while others — journalists, lobbyists and officials from the Maryland Hospital Association and the University of Maryland Medical System, and staffers for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and the Maryland Health Care Commission — cooled their heels in the hall.
The topic of discussion, lawmakers said later, was the county’s transitioning hospital system.
The lawmakers, all Democrats, chose to meet as a party caucus rather than a legislative delegation because caucuses are not subject to open-meetings laws, and they wanted to huddle in private.
Normally, the Prince George’s Democratic caucus meets on Tuesdays.
“Does the Republican caucus have open meetings?” said Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. (D-Prince George’s), the Democratic caucus chair, when asked why Friday’s meeting was closed. “This is a Democratic Party caucus meeting, which is no different from any other caucus meeting. Do Republicans talk to you about what was discussed?”
Del. Michael L. Vaughn (D-Prince George’s) said the members of the group “were sharing our feelings on the hospital. . . . I hope everything works out.”
The county’s health-care system has been the subject of much consternation and controversy this year, as officials downsize Laurel Regional Hospital, await state clearance for a planned regional teaching hospital in Largo and spar over operational subsidies for the existing Prince George’s Hospital Center.
Though lawmakers declined to provide specifics from the meeting, Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s) said the caucus wanted clarity on two specific bills regarding health care in the county.
One, sponsored by Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), would change the process for closing a hospital. The other, which is supported by the state hospital association and sponsored by a lawmaker who is not from Prince George’s, would allow medical facilities to open in Maryland without obtaining a certificate of need from the state.
At one point, Ben Steffen, acting executive director of the Maryland Health Care Commission — the body charged with approving a new regional hospital — was invited inside the meeting to answer questions.
Barnes said there was some talk among lawmakers about why the meeting had to be closed, but there was no vote to open it. House Judiciary Chair Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s) walked out of the room a few minutes after the meeting began.
“We try as a delegation to be as transparent as possible. We have nothing to hide,” said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s). “I believe the reason we went into a closed session was just so we could get information, and we weren’t going to take any action.”
County delegation chair Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) said the delegation has basically completed its work for the legislative session that ends in three weeks and therefore had no reason to have one of its regularly scheduled public meetings.
The caucus session, he said, was simply an opportunity “to get priorities together and see where we stand on some bills. The number-one priority of the last several years has been the [planned] Prince George’s County hospital, so we don’t want to do anything to hinder it.”