The Return of the Hospital Debate
Things have been pretty quiet with the troubled Prince George's hospital system since county officials pledged in April to use public money to keep the doors open through June 2008. But Del. Doyle Niemann (D) thinks the quiet is a bad idea, repeating a years-long pattern of half-resolved crisis moments followed by months of inaction.
Niemann sponsored a bill this year that was the basis for ultimately unsuccessful negotiations between the state and county for a long-term solution for the system's problems. He says this year, discussions must start early. As in, right now.
That's why he is already circulating an updated version of this year's bill. He says it could be considered by the legislature if it holds a special session in the fall or during next year's session that will convene in January.
Like this year's bill, Niemann's new proposal, which you can read here and here, would create a Hospital Authority that would take over for Dimensions Healthcare, the non-profit company that now runs Prince George's Hospital Center and four other county health facilities.
The Authority would have the ability to hire and fire employees, making management decisions and negotiate with new hospitals interested in taking over the system. It would be supported by a state-mandated 3 percent property tax on county residents for 10 years, which Niemann estimates would raise at least $190 million. The state would also contribute: $10 million a year in operating and $13 million a year in capital expenses for the next 7 years, resulting in $161 million in state funds.
In an attempt to steer clear of the issue that derailed the deal this year, Niemann's bill would specify that the county would not have to turn over the hospitals' land and building to the authority. This year, the county council rejected a similar deal with the state because members believed they were being asked to give up the land for essentially nothing. Instead, Niemann's new bill would specify that the county could keep the land but the Authority would take over the lease Dimensions now holds, in which they pay $1 year for the next 35 years.
He said he had forwarded his bill to the council and executive Jack B. Johnson (D), but he also said it is designed so that the county's agreement is not necessary to make the plan work.
Niemann says it's important to get the public talking now about his ideas and others. "What we need is a public discussion, to say here are the stakes. This is what we lose if we don't act. But more than that, this is what we can gain if we act in a positive, proactive direction."
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