ANNAPOLIS – With financial and legislative deadlines looming, Prince George’s County and state officials still are at odds over what to do about the financially strapped, county-owned Prince George’s Hospital Center.
Tensions mounted in a packed Senate Budget and Taxation Committee hearing on Wednesday during what became a showdown between county and state legislators. There was not an empty seat to be found as lobbyists, legislators and health care union workers in purple and yellow T-shirts stood shoulder to shoulder.
“When I get sick … when my wife gets sick … when my kid gets sick …we go to Dimensions’ Hospital,” said Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s. The audience applauded loudly. “And all the people you see standing around the wall . . . support the hospital. We want to make sure that they go there as well when they get sick.”
Union workers, lobbyist and legislators applauded again.
Prince George’s County members of the General Assembly have proposed legislation that would create a hospital authority that would oversee management of the troubled Dimensions Healthcare System, which operates the large Prince George’s Hospital Center and four other facilities.
In addition to providing $50 million in state aid over the next five years, the proposal calls for a tax on Prince George’s residents to pay off the hospital system’s debts.
It is the tax that has angered County Executive Jack B. Johnson, who called the proposal “just a bad bill” and by other county politicians. But the measure is supported by the hospital’s unionized health care workers.
Others simply appealed to the committee to do something.
“If we don’t resolve this in the next nine days, the system stops,” G. Frederick Robinson, the mayor of Bowie, told committee members. “That’s not acceptable. It’s not inconvenient. It’s suicidal.”
No closer to an agreement, the only thing county and state officials could agree on was that time is running out and they need to work together. Currie suggested that state and county officials, along with the O’Malley administration, get together to form a workgroup to find an answer on what do with the health care system.
But members of the county council, Camille Exum and Samuel H. Dean, as well as Johnson, protested the delegation’s hospital authority proposal and the tax.
“This bill does not address at all the long term issues in our county,” Johnson said. “Not one iota.”
Exum called the proposal’s mandate to tax county citizens “unconscionable”, and called the bill “fatally-flawed.”
“I believe and the members of the council believe, it is unconscionable to ask the citizens of Prince George’s County to pay for the indebtedness of a private corporation,” Exum said. “Prince George’s is a regional hospital, part of a state trauma network and it’s an unfair burden to be placed on the citizens of Prince George’s County solely.”
For weeks Johnson has said that he is negotiating with a third party to take over the hospital, but would not name it. His written testimony confirms speculation that he has been courting Doctor’s Hospital for the job.
However, county officials were not happy with the state’s response to their proposal for another entity to take over the hospital.
“Not only did we commit our money, we committed a lot of our time to finding a solution,” said Johnson.
Johnson said the proposal circulating among state legislators is more costly and doesn’t limit the proposed authority’s taxing power.
“”This bill is not limited at all in its taxing authority,” Johnson said.”It [the hospital authority] can raise taxes whenever it wants to. There’s no accountability with respect to the citizens of Prince George’s County.”
The county’s plan will run about $37 million. A new facility will cost about $437 million, but the delegation plan calls for $500 million in taxes, Johnson said.
There were no cheers or applause for Johnson. Only silence.
With only days left to resolve the problem, Johnson and the county council member agreed to meet with state legislators to come up with a proposal.