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State approves new Harford hospital plan, but delays closing old facility

The University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Behavioral Health psychiatric hospital will be a part of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health's new Aberdeen campus.

The University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Behavioral Health psychiatric hospital will be a part of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s new Aberdeen campus.

State regulators approved Thursday a proposal to close University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital and replace it with a new facility in Aberdeen over the objections of Havre de Grace elected officials worried about closing the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The approval from the Maryland Health Care Commission ends a years-long process that began in 2014 when University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health first approached the commission about the plans.

The plan is part of a trend in Maryland where aging community hospitals that are part of larger health care systems convert to so-called freestanding medical facilities, essentially an emergency department along with adjacent medical offices. Some of the core hospital functions are transferred to larger hub hospitals within the system.

The Upper Chesapeake plan would create the largest freestanding medical facility in the state by closing Harford Memorial Hospital, creating the facility in Aberdeen with emergency department space and a new special psychiatric hospital. It would also add space to the system’s hub in Bel Air.

The system originally planned to create the new facility in Havre de Grace but closer to Interstate 95 than Harford Memorial’s current downtown location. Those plans fell apart when it was deemed too costly to put the new facility in Havre de Grace. The Aberdeen location is right off of the interstate.

The whole project will cost about $204 million. An estimated renovation of Harford Memorial Hospital would have cost around $240 million, regulators said.

The new facility will cost $56.6 million. The 69,343 square-foot project will include 25 emergency treatment spaces, 17 observation rooms, imaging services, lab services, a pharmacy and administration space.

The psychiatric hospital, considered a separate project, will be built on the second floor and cost $63 million. The 74,892 square-foot facility will have space for 33 beds.

The project also adds three floors to the Kaufman Cancer Center at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, the Bel Air hub of the Upper Chesapeake system. That project, which will cost $84.4 million, will add 98,000 square feet of space and 72 beds to the medical center.

Havre de Grace city officials have opposed the closure of Harford Memorial for years, worried about losing services and jobs from the facility, along with the hole it will leave in the city’s downtown.

They raised objections again in advance of Thursday’s commission meeting, worried about the closure of the hospital during a pandemic.

“Any action to move forward … is a blatant disregard for public health and a direct assault on the health and safety of the people we represent, therefore we respectfully ask you to remove this item from consideration until this public emergency is over and we have a better understanding of our community healthcare needs,” Dels. Steve Johnson and Mary Ann Lisanti, D-Harford, wrote to the commission. “No immunity, no vaccine, no cure means that until a treatment is discovered we are in a health care and economic calamity. Going forward, it is certain that decisions on how healthcare is delivered will be challenged giving the high death toll in Maryland, America and abroad.”

Havre de Grace Mayor William T. Martin also sent a letter in opposition.

As part of the commission’s approval Thursday, Harford Memorial will not close until after the new facility opens at least two years from now.

But in his letter, Martin expressed concern that approval would prevent future changes made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At that future time when lessons have been learned from this pandemic regarding the optimal health care delivery model which serves the best interests of the citizens of Maryland, we in Harford County will be stuck with the model approved by the MHCC at tomorrow’s meeting,” he wrote.

James Buck, an attorney for the health system, suggested that the letters from the elected officials were a last-ditch effort to stop the project.

“I will say that we think that some of the commentary was a little bit opportunistic and seeking to derail the project, which has been on the commission’s docket for a number of years now, in light of the pandemic” he told the commission.

Approval for the project was not unanimous. Commissioner Gerard S. O’Connor suggested it may not be prudent to approve any new projects until the scope of changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is clear.

“I think there’s probably going to be a major paradigm shift in health care. Telehealth will take a big hold on what’s going on,” O’Connor said. “I think it’s prudent to wait and see how everything falls out before we make a decision about a major permanent change. Because in two years from now, I can’t predict how health care is going to look. I don’t think anyone else can.”

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