CHEVERLY – Sandra Powell was born at Prince George’s Hospital Center. So were her four siblings and her two children. And each day for the past 31 years, she has gone to Prince George’s Hospital to work as well.
“Everybody knows everybody, and of course with the years I’ve been here you know it’s like a family,” Powell said.
But now, the 49-year-old mother of two teenagers is facing the prospect of having to find another job. One of 1,800 employees who works at the financially-troubled hospital, Powell is waiting anxiously to find out next week whether years of last chances for the hospital to find its way out of financial difficulty will come to an end and the hospital’s board will order it closed.
“When I heard that they were thinking about closing this hospital I was devastated,” Powell said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Talks between county and state officials aimed at keeping the 279-bed hospital open are still taking place. The stakes are high – not only for employees like Powell, but for the entire health care system in suburban Washington and Southern Maryland, of which the county-owned hospital and its affiliated facilities are a major part.
Some 180,000 patients use the hospital system each year. Prince George’s Hospital is the regional trauma center for Southern Maryland, and the only hospital in the region with a neonatal intensive care unit equipped to take care of premature babies and infants with life threatening conditions.
“There would be considerable impact on the health care delivery system in Prince George’s County and in surrounding jurisdictions,” said John Colmers, Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene. “There will be a ripple effect that will be felt throughout the state.”
The hospital board is set to vote on whether the hospital should close or file for bankruptcy on Wednesday. In the meantime, the fate of Powell and her colleagues is in limbo.
Like Powell, Rickey Hogan, a 59-year-old pharmacy technician, worked his way through the ranks at the hospital. Hogan started working at “PG,” as it is often known, in 1976 after graduating from Bladensburg High School.
His first job was washing bed pans. He went on to work various other jobs in the operating room and nursing services before becoming a certified pharmacy technician.
“When I came, I didn’t have any training,” Hogan said. “Now I’m certified. I know medication. I like to see people cured. You know … walk out instead of carried out.”
Hogan called the mood inside the hospital quiet and somber.
“I want it to stay open, everybody wants it to stay open, cause let’s face it, you need a job,” Hogan said.
Like most of the hospital’s employees, Hogan is a member of 1199SEIU, the health care workers union, which has played a visible role in the tense and often frustrating negotiations that have dragged on all winter. The talks have involved at one time or another County Executive Jack B. Johnson, members of the county council, the county’s delegation to the General Assembly, Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown.
“For the last few years we in Prince George’s have been wrestling with a facility that has been facing a decline,” said Brown, a former member of the House of Delegates from Prince George’s. “We fight for upscale retail in our county, but we have thrown in the towel for upscale health care.”
Indeed, a fiscal crisis of one kind or another has been the normal state of affairs at the hospital for decades.
As far back as 1985, for example, 650 hospital employees were fired due to a decline in patients and increase in expenses, according to news accounts. Fifty of those were nurses.
But longtime employees say it has never been as bad as this, when people ranging from the chief executive of Dimensions Healthcare System, which manages the hospital, to O’Malley have said they fear there is no alternative to closing the nearly 63-year-old facility.
“The majority of people have been on this roller coaster ride over a period years,” said Joyce White, a clinical coding associate who has worked at the hospital for 31 years. “It’s like we have hit rock bottom now and that’s where the anxiety and the fear have kicked in.”
Powell, who lives in Upper Marlboro, came to Prince George’s Hospital in 1976 after graduating from DuVal High School in Lanham. She began as a physical therapy aide and worked her way up to her current position in the central sterile processing unit.
She remembers that back in the 1970s and 1980s the hospital would train employees to work in different positions. She herself received such training and was able to gain certification in her specialty.
Over the years, Powell said, she remembers the hospital going through hard times, but nothing like this.
“Never, ever had they threatened to close this hospital before,” Powell said. “It never got this bad. They’ve laid people off before but they never threatened to close.”
Powell said she makes about $35,000 per year, and without a college degree, she said it will be difficult to make the same salary or to find another job like the one she has, supervising some 15 people in the hospital department responsible for sterilizing medical instruments.
“I don’t even want to think about going anywhere else,” she said.
Like Powell, JoAnn Bailey’s ties to the hospital have as much to do with her family as her job. All of her four children were born there and she has worked there for 38 years.
“I keep it in prayer,” Bailey said. “I don’t believe this place is going anywhere.”
Several other employees referred to what they called the hospital’s family atmosphere.
“Sometimes we spend more time with our co-workers than you do your family,” said Cathy Clark, another operating room employee. “When they have hardships at home we feel it. It’s just going to be sad to think I wont’ see her [Bailey] again tomorrow.”