By George Berkheimer, Senior Writer
Laurel officials are fighting what can be described as an exhausting battle to shore up the city’s health care and mass transit infrastructure. While they’ve scored a decisive win on the hospital front, new pressures have emerged that threaten the city’s ability to handle an expected increase in local MARC ridership.
The University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) assumed ownership of Dimensions Healthcare System (DHS) on Sept. 1, creating a new entity known as University of Maryland Capital Region Health (UMCRH). UMMS also announced a $50 million investment to modernize and enhance Laurel Regional Hospital, formerly part of DHS and now rebranded the University of Maryland Laurel Regional Hospital (UMLRH).
The announcement marks a major milestone for Laurel Mayor Craig Moe and members of the City Council following a year-long community engagement process to halt DHS plans to transform the hospital into an ambulatory care center, with limited services.
As part of that process, Moe and UMMS Surgeon-in-Chief Dr. Stephen Bartlett co-chaired a work group focused on critical issues, such as emergency medical care, the expansion of services to address specific community health needs and hospital workforce.
“Our goal was to make sure that the community, patients, employees, union members and physicians would have a voice in the discussion about the future of the hospital,” Moe said.
A seven-member interim board overseeing transition of the new regional health care system will be replaced with a permanent UMCRH Board of Directors in 2019.
In partnership with the University of Maryland School of Medicine and UMCRH, UMMS has created several strategic goals for UMLRH. These include expanding access for primary/community care; specialty care and other services to reduce health care disparities in the region; strengthening the care continuum from primary care through post-acute care; facilitating investment in outpatient services and health education programs to manage chronic diseases; and broadening access to discovery-based medicine.
“We are keenly attuned to the necessity to become more efficient and financially viable in an evolving health care environment that is increasingly focused on population health prevention,” said Neil Moore, president and CEO of UMCRH.
UMCRH is now poised to serve as a catalyst for redevelopment and economic growth in the county through construction of the University of Maryland Capital Region Medical Center, which will replace the current Prince George’s Hospital Center, in Cheverly, and through the modernization and transformation of the UMLRH campus.
“For decades, too many Prince Georgians have left the county for medical care and hospitalization,” said UMCRH Board Chair Bradford Seamon. “The time has come to bring our residents back and engender their full confidence in the quality and expertise of health care options right here at home.”
In a taped interview for Laurel TV, the city’s public access television channel, Moe and Bartlett discussed the benefits that the work group has strived to deliver. The full interview is available on Laurel’s government website and YouTube Channel.
“The big question is, ‘How are we going to redesign health care delivery?,’” Bartlett said. “We know from studies that there are not adequate services at this point and we know that the police, fire and Emergency Medical Services system is really overwhelmed by behavioral health issues [in the community].”
Projections for the campus include a modernized emergency room with 24 bays, including four secure rooms for patients with behavioral problems; a modernized emergency room; a specialized unit for rapid resuscitation of critically ill patients; and a base station connected to Emergency Medical Services to provide advance notification of emergency arrivals.
Two brand-new operating rooms will allow for major surgery on an outpatient basis, with the added convenience of observation beds allowing up to 48 hours of post-surgery follow-on care and immediate transition to a rehabilitation facility, if needed.
“Major abdominal surgery, dental surgery, podiatry, all kinds of major clinical operations will be possible in this new facility,” Bartlett said. “We want to create a vibrant community where people can get their medical care and also have a destination for other things — perhaps a restaurant, pharmacy, a wellness center, a place where they can do continuing education. There are lots of ideas for how we can build this beautiful campus into a vibrant destination with multiple purposes, including the best health care in Laurel.”
According to Moe, the work group’s workforce development subcommittee provided recommendations to assist hospital employees who may need to transition to jobs in other locations, due to changes in the services UMLRH will offer.
“I think the community has to stay engaged, and the elected officials need to continue to work together,” Moe said. “It’s not going to be everything everybody wants, but I think it’s going to be something we’re all very proud of and something that will meet the community needs.”
At a Town Hall meeting in September, City Council Member Ed Ricks updated the community on efforts to maintain service on the Camden Line at the Laurel MARC station.
Although Laurel secured a Memorandum of Understanding from the Maryland Department of Transportation that preserves commuter service at the historic train station, proposed plans for a nearby transit-oriented development project in adjacent Howard County threaten to overwhelm the station with capacity issues.
That development, known as Laurel Park Station, is being pursued by the Stronach Group, which owns the Laurel Park race track.
“Phase 1 and Phase 2 would allow 500 houses to be built,” Ricks said. “The [upgraded] railroad station there will not be built until Phase 3. How are [Laurel Park Station commuters] going to get on the train? They’re going to come to Laurel, and Laurel doesn’t have any space for them.”
Aside from woefully inadequate parking capacity, there is also an issue of inadequate pedestrian infrastructure along northbound Route 1 to provide pedestrian safety for those commuters who would be forced to walk to Laurel’s station in the interim.
The state of Maryland, which owns Laurel’s MARC commuter lot, has tried and failed twice to hire a developer to build a parking garage and other amenities on the property.
The city’s goal, Ricks said, is to either press the state to develop that property and provide a parking garage, or transfer the property to Laurel so the city can build a garage itself.
So far, he said, Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn’s position has been non-committal.
“We’re aware of the concerns that the City of Laurel is dealing with and support their efforts to get a parking lot built,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, acknowledging that his office participates in monthly conference calls with stakeholders to address those issues.
“We’re limited in what we can accomplish in terms of pedestrian safety on Route 1, because the State Highway Administration controls that roadway,” he said.
“We have to continue to be prudent and stay on top of the state, and make sure they build us a garage that can accommodate not only [Howard County’s] growth, but the growth that already exists here in the city,” Ricks said. “We will continue to do that.”