By Bryna Zumer
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman praised University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s plans for a more limited-use hospital in Havre de Grace and expanded inpatient services at its Bel Air location, but a state legislator has concerns about the impact the planned closing of Harford Memorial Hospital will have on the surrounding area.
Glassman said he believes it is important that emergency services will still be available in Havre de Grace, which Upper Chesapeake officials say will still be part of their planned $118 million Havre de Grace facility, development of which they announced Wednesday.
“I understand it, because when you look at the capital market and the reimbursement rates [for health care], it makes sense to really do this type of hospital instead of investing in a full-service hospital,” he said.
Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat from Havre de Grace, said that “while Harford Memorial Hospital may be an aging facility, it is a full-service community hospital.”
She said she has expressed her concerns about closing the hospital to Upper Chesapeake officials, who say they will need a change in state laws to implement their plan for the new facility.
The hybrid hospital, to be built on 97 acres near the I-95/Route 155 interchange, will have an emergency room, ambulatory care and diagnostic services and a dozen beds to keep patients for one to two days. It will also have a full-service, behavioral health care component with 40 secure beds.
~~The facility is planned as a replacement for Harford Memorial, which occupies nine acres in downtown Havre de Grace, and it will not provide the typical medical/surgical inpatient services associated with traditional hospitals. Upper Chesapeake officials say those services that are left at Harford Memorial, and they are few, will be combined with the Upper Chesapeake Medical Center hospital in Bel Air, which they expect to expand by 32 beds at a cost of $62 million.
They hope to get the new Havre de Grace facility and the Bel Air expansion completed in 2020.
“The new proposed [Havre de Grace] facility is not a hospital,” Lisanti said. “It is a standalone medical facility.”
Lisanti said state law requires the operators of hospitals to go through “a very lengthy community needs assessment” before changing how they deliver their services.
“The designation of a free-standing medical facility does not currently exist in Maryland law,” she noted
Upper Chesapeake officials say they are working and the Maryland Hospital Association to pass legislation in the current session of the Maryland General Assembly to create the free-standing designation.
In response, Lisanti said she is working with fellow legislators on a bill to require a public review process on the state and local levels if a hospital operator wants to close a facility or downgrade services.
“My concern is my community needs to have a full understanding of what they are proposing, and what they are proposing is to take a full-fledged hospital and replace it with a new facility that is simply just a medical center,” Lisanti said.
“We are very supportive of [Upper Chesapeake] as one of our top employers,” Glassman said Wednesday, noting the plan’s emphasis on behavioral health is needed in light of the heroin and other substance abuse problems in Harford.
“When you look at homelessness, addiction, alcoholism and all the ills that we have, just like all the other counties in the state have, we do really need to have the mental health wraparound,” he said.
Upper Chesapeake’s plans include consolidating the behavioral health services at Harford Memorial Hospital and Elkton’s Union Hospital to the new Havre de Grace facility.
Glassman also pointed out the plan has a long way to go, probably longer than the ambitious timetable announced Wednesday when the legislative changes, regulatory approvals and financing are factored in.
“I think it’s the right long-term plan, and we can work through any of the issues we have,” he said.
Glassman said he wants to ensure local ambulances could take patients to the new Havre de Grace campus, and he has not been told yet if the site would provide such emergency services.
Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt said he is concerned about what the consolidation of behavioral health and greater focus on the Bel Air hospital could mean for western Cecil County and Havre de Grace residents.
“I think I need to hear more about it, because it sounds like, for medical treatment, the folks in Perryville and Havre de Grace are going to now have to travel a great distance further,” Eberhardt said, taking note of the reduced number of beds planned for the new Havre de Grace site.
He also wondered where a Perryville ambulance would have to go, if it would be limited to taking patients to Elkton or Bel Air.
“It raises some questions and concerns, and sounds like it’s going to be a while,” he said of the plan.
Harford Memorial has 84 licensed beds, 26 of them dedicated to behavioral health, compared to the proposed new facility, which would have 52 beds, 40 of which would be set aside for behavioral health.
Harford Memorial occupies 279,400 square feet in downtown Havre de Grace and has 600 full-time workers, according to UCH’s data. The facility is aging, has areas not in use and would be prohibitive to renovate, Upper Chesapeake President and CEO Lyle Sheldon said. The new, 194,000-square-foot facility would have 500 full-time employees.
Sheldon said they don’t expect job reductions in the Upper Chesapeake system, which employs about 3,200 people, as some jobs in Havre de Grace would move to Bel Air. If anything, he said, more jobs will gradually be added across the system, which is Harford County’s largest private employer.
Sheldon said community meetings will be held on the new hospital plan and proposed closing of Harford Memorial. He said they have been talking with Havre de Grace city officials about potential redevelopment opportunities on the downtown site.
Del. Glen Glass, a Republican who like Lisanti represents the Route 40 corridor between Havre de Grace and Joppatowne, said he looks favorably on the proposal as one that “is definitely going to improve the health care for the citizens of Harford County.”
He said the proposal’s emphasis on expanded preventative care, wellness and fitness programs is a major plus.
“They’re looking at the patients as not just patients, but people that they serve,” he said.
The new medical center, he said, will be “wonderful for Havre de Grace,” both with the proposed redevelopment of the current hospital site and the potential for additional retail and commercial development there.
“[Havre de Grace residents] are going to be able to go to a modern facility, and it’s only going to take them five minutes if they need to go to the hospital,” he said.
Harford County Council President Richard Slutzky, an Aberdeen resident, said he had not seen the newest plans for the I-95/155 property but a new hospital makes sense overall.
“I think emotionally for the citizens of Havre de Grace, when you have a historic institution, it’s always hard to deal with change,” he said.
“I don’t pretend to know the modern dynamics of medical care, and if they are going to have a new facility within blocks of Bel Air, that could provide a benefit to the citizens of Bel Air,” Slutzky said.
He is concerned about the potential lack of parking at the Upper Chesapeake Bel Air campus, which covers 50 acres.
“The parking has been a difficult issue for them there, and I think that might be an issue they need to address,” he said.