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Pr. Geo.'s, State Name Hospital Deal Negotiators

Anne Bartlett

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

And for the Prince George's hospital system, that step will be taken by the county's finance chief, Iris B. Boswell, and Peggy J. Watson, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

According to County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), the two have been appointed by the county and the state to negotiate the trickiest issue facing the future of the hospital system: how much money each side will put on the table to lure new buyers for the hospitals.

Appointing the negotiators was the first of several requirements outlined in a bill signed into law by O'Malley last Thursday. The two sides were required to name their mediators within 10 days.

Next up is a 30-day deadline for appointing an independent seven-member authority that will run the bidding process to find new hospital owners. The authority must be named by June 21. Three members will be appointed by the county, three by O'Malley and one jointly by the Senate president and speaker of the House of Delegates.

The hospital system, which includes Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, Laurel Regional Hospital, Bowie Health Campus and two nursing homes, is owned by the county and managed by the non-profit Dimensions Healthcare.

To lure hospital bidders, the county and state must agree to pledge operating money and funds to help refurbish long-outdated facilities.

The bill requires the state and county each to pay $12million a year for the next two years to keep the hospital system's doors open while the authority conducts the bidding process.

Boswell and Watson have 60 days to work out the money issue, a deadline of July 21.

If the state and county cannot agree, they can agree to a 30-day extension. But if there is no resolution by Aug. 20, both sides will be relieved of any obligation to fund the system.

Without additional public subsidies, the system could shut down, hospital leaders have said.

"Just because the bill was signed doesn't automatically mean that the work is done," said Ebs Burnough, political director of Service Employees International Union 1199, which represents hospital workers, in a statement.

"If ninety days pass and the deadlines and goals haven't been met, we're right back where we were in April of 2007 when the hospitals almost closed."

Johnson has said he had some concerns with details of the bill but was enthusiastic about the possibility that it could result in long-term health for the hospitals.

Reaction from the County Council, which has been more skeptical of making deals with the state, has been more muted. Four members attended last week's bill signing, but council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) said the day before that the $12 million that the bill requires the county to spend just to keep the hospital open for the next two years is a "sizable chunk of our budget."

He said the county will have to negotiate over whether it could afford to pledge even more to lure a buyer.

"We do have a person who represents the county in negotiations with the state in making sure what comes out is equitable," he said.

Dimensions President and chief executive G.T. Dunlop Ecker said the system received a payment from the county in March and, with the bill's signing, would expect to receive state and county funding in July. He said the signing allows the county and state to look for a new buyer to take over from Dimensions.

"That's the good news," Ecker said. "The bad news is if they do not, then all bets are off, all financial commitments are null and void, and we're back to square one."

By Anne Bartlett  |  May 30, 2008; 10:23 AM ET
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