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Md. labor leaders hoping to stave off plan to close aging state hospitals

The Western Maryland Hospital Center, with 123 beds, cares for a wide range of patients. It would be closed under a state plan. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

HAGERSTOWN — Labor union leaders opposed to plans they say will privatize the state’s aging hospital system have opened up a new front in their efforts to prevent closures across Maryland. 

On Wednesday, the state took a step toward closing one of the oldest facilities in the country as part of a sale to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Leaders of AFSCME Council 3, at a Friday event that was both an employee and campaign rally, sought to stave off efforts to close two other hospitals in the state. 

“This facility is a pillar of the community,” said Ginger Noble, president of the union’s chapter that represents employees at the Western Maryland Hospital Center in Hagerstown. “We are the facility that cares for those sensitive and delicate patients, which require long-term care and rehabilitation but cannot afford other means of care. We are their caretakers, family, and voice. There is no alternative. Keeping Western Maryland Hospital Center open is what we must do.” 

Friday’s event also featured Tom Perez, a Democrat running for governor who has been endorsed by the union. 

Perez said he opposes the Department of Health plan that would close the state hospital facilities. 

A master plan released last fall by the Maryland Department of Health gave poor overall ratings to both the Western Maryland Hospital Center and Deer’s Head Hospital Center in Salisbury.  

The two facilities, however, differ from Spring Grove, which focuses primarily on psychiatric patients. The vast majority of Spring Grove patients receive treatment after being found incompetent to stand trial, while the two western Maryland sites offer more skilled nursing care. 

The Western Maryland Hospital Center, with more than 123 licensed beds, cares for a wide range of patients, including those with spinal cord and brain injuries and those needing specialized wound care and some dialysis treatment. There are currently 42 patients at the facility.

The 125-bed Deer’s Head facility cares for patients with complex medical conditions as well as those with traumatic brain injuries or who have tuberculosis but are not compliant in their treatment. 

The state’s master plan calls for a move to “strategic partnerships” with community providers. 

An analysis earlier this year by the Department of Legislative Services noted that the state’s master plan does not show that private and community facilities can absorb the patients. 

“This plan is another attempt to privatize public services despite the critical role these facilities play in providing middle-class jobs to Hagerstown and Salisbury, respectively,” said Patrick Moran, president of the state union. “Our members are fighting for their jobs and fighting to ensure their patients have continued access to the vital public services they’re counting on.” 

Chase Cook, a spokesman for the department disputed the analysis and Moran’s claims.

“There is ample private and community capacity to absorb the 42 current patients at the Western Maryland Hospital Center,” said Cook.

The Board of Public Works Wednesday voted 2-1 to approve the sale of nearly 180 acres of land that is the site of Spring Grove Hospital in Catonsville to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 

The psychiatric hospital, opened in 1797, is the second-oldest such facility in continuous operation in the country. 

Decades of neglect and underfunding left Spring Grove and other state hospitals in decrepit conditions. State health officials say those conditions make shifting to private partnerships a better option. 

“I don’t think, in my heart of hearts, that anyone would be willing to spend the money at Spring Grove to recapitalize that facility,” said Health Secretary Dennis Schrader, who said 40 years of neglect had made the facility “far too gone.” 

“If I came in with a budget of $400 or $500 million to recapitalize that property, I’d get thrown out,” said Schrader.