Officials: Hospital deal could be reached by summer
Proposal to alter rules of sale not expected to delay effort beyond this year
State delegates and hospital union officials expressed optimism last week that the Prince George's County hospital system will be sold within the year — with the deal hammered out this summer — despite missing the previous deadline for the sale of the three medical centers.
"We've made progress," said Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Dist. 23A) of Bowie. "We just need more time."
Legislation sponsored by the county delegation would allow the Prince George's County Hospital Authority — a committee charged with selling the financially strapped hospital system — to have until May 2010 to work out details on how to sell off the hospitals in Cheverly, Laurel and Bowie. The hospital authority was convened in June 2008 with a goal of having a purchase in place by March 15 of this year. However, few bidders expressed interest in all three hospitals, and legislation has required that they be sold as a package.
The county-owned hospitals have required financial bailouts over the past decade from the county and state due to a large number of uninsured patients. Officials estimate the hospitals, which serve 180,000 patients each year, lose about $12 million annually. Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly has been identified as the biggest financial burden, with half of its patients being uninsured.
The proposed legislation, which met little resistance at a House Health and Government Matters Committee hearing last week, would allow the hospitals to be sold individually, but they must be sold at the same time.
"It has to be all or none," said Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Dist. 24) of Landover. "We have to be sure Prince George's County Hospital will not be standing alone."
The deals would need to be reviewed by state and county officials before they could be finalized.
Glover said he hopes to begin bringing in interested purchasers soon. Because the authority's current timeline is up, the extension bill must pass before the group can take official action.
County Council members last month criticized the hospital progress for taking longer than expected and for possibly leaving parts unsold, but have not filed an objection to the current extension bill.
Authority members said they will use the nine bids they have received on the individual hospitals as a starting point for further negotiations.
"We will now work with these nine parties," said Kenneth Glover, authority chairman. "This gives a unique opportunity to negotiate the best deal possible."
Glover would not provide information about the nine bids, which are under a nondisclosure agreement. Delegates and other officials said they did not know the identities, either.
"I don't want to know that," Hubbard said. "I just want [the authority] to have the power to get this done."
Glover and Hubbard said if all goes well, the deals could be reached by the summer.
"It might not be the same buyer for all three," Glover said March 19. "But we will have someone for each location."
Officials are also pursuing other options to aid the struggling hospital system. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has asked the federal government to give $156 million from the nation's Homeland Security budget to transform Prince George's Hospital Center into a regional trauma center by partnering with the military and a teaching hospital program from a local university.
That proposal cannot be finalized until the federal budget passes in October.
Stacy Mink, a spokeswoman for the union that represents hospital workers in Prince George's, said the union endorses the option of a joint partnership with a learning institution, which would provide stable funding and offset losses.
"That kind of money cements the hospital's reputation as a first-class choice for emergency care in the capital area," Mink said. "We'll definitely be advocating that."
Economic concerns are posing another hurdle in the deal. Last week, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) announced he is asking the state to pay the $12 million the county agreed to contribute to keeping the hospital afloat until a purchaser is found.
Hubbard expressed concern about Johnson's proposal, which he said could give the appearance that the county is not fully supporting a hospital solution.
"There needs to be that partnership between the county and state [on funding] to keep this hospital running," Hubbard said.
E-mail Daniel Valentine at email@example.com.