Monday, April 28, 2008

MoCo: Who Cares About Hospitals? We Want an Arena!

Washington Adventist Hospital’s impending move out of Takoma Park is the biggest development in Montgomery County’s health care system in decades. So why is the Montgomery County government’s reaction one of complete silence?

Currently located in Takoma Park, Adventist is the second-biggest hospital in Montgomery County with 294 beds. After a four-year battle with its neighbors over an expansion plan, Adventist announced it was leaving Takoma Park in 2005. While the hospital’s CEO denied that the conflict with neighbors motivated the move, he did say that its current 14-acre site was not big enough to accommodate the hospital’s long-term needs. Two years later, Adventist purchased 48 acres near US-29 and Cherry Hill Road for a new campus. Montgomery County’s Planning Board unanimously recommended a special exception for the hospital’s land use last week. The final decision on Adventist’s move will be made by the Maryland Health Care Commission and many expect Adventist to file its Certificate of Need (a required application from hospitals for major capital projects) this August.

Holy Cross Hospital is 3.6 miles up Sligo Creek Parkway from Adventist and is the county’s largest hospital (404 beds). When Adventist announced its land purchase, Holy Cross reacted with alarm. Holy Cross told the Gazette and its neighbors that it would be “overwhelmed” by former Adventist patients from Down-county, Prince George’s County and the District if Adventist were allowed to flee up US-29.

This matter is not simply a battle between hospitals. The neighborhoods around Holy Cross have been moved to militancy in recent years by the treacherous conditions at the Intersection of Death, a failed development proposal at the Forest Glen Metro station and a giant expansion planned for the Sligo Creek Golf Course. These same neighborhoods are negotiating with Holy Cross Hospital over its own 100-room expansion after going through a previous one completed in 2005. If Holy Cross is correct, Adventist’s move will plug up Georgia Avenue (including the IOD) and Sligo Creek Parkway, flood Holy Cross’s emergency room and produce enormous health care access problems for Down-county patients.

But Holy Cross may not be correct. Since it is hardly an impartial observer of Adventist’s move, its arguments should be evaluated by an independent entity. Last year, both Holy Cross and my civic association wrote to the Montgomery County Council asking them to fund a health impact study on the effect of Adventist’s move. While the Maryland Health Care Commission is a state agency, it does take into account the views of county governments in deciding on Certificates of Need. Surely, we thought, such a significant event in the county’s health care system could not pass without comment by the county government.

Council Member George Leventhal agreed with us. A year ago, the Gazette reported:

HHS [Health and Human Services Committee] Chairman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park proposed assessing the financial stability of the county’s hospitals, how moving one hospital would affect the others and how the changes would affect access to health care.

“We need to make decisions based on fact, not on the [back and forth] between hospitals. We don’t really know the effects of the move and we need to find out,” he said.
Despite Leventhal’s dogged advocacy, disagreements over the study’s scope delayed it and the county’s current budget problems ultimately killed it. And so the hospitals and their neighbors prepared for a grim showdown before the Maryland Health Care Commission, with both hospitals submitting their own Certificates of Need for their dueling capital plans and the Montgomery County government standing aside, arms folded, uninterested. Well, we thought, in bad budget times, few get what they want from the county.

And then this Gazette article crackled through the neighborhood like a midnight thunderbolt. While the county has dickered, bickered, delayed and ultimately abdicated any say on its hospitals, it has spent $150,000 (plus $50,000 of state money) on a planning study for a new indoor arena in Germantown. And the county’s Department of Economic Development is requesting $125,000 more! Put aside the merits of the arena (which my union members would no doubt love to build); does planning for an entertainment facility really take precedence over evaluating the impact of a giant hospital relocation? Apparently some believe it does!

So enjoy watching the Maryland Nighthawks play minor league basketball in the new arena! Just don’t choke on that hot dog. The ambulance may not know where to take you.