CHESTERTOWN — The General Assembly adjourned late Monday night without passage of a bill crafted to preserve inpatient services at the University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Chestertown, narrowing a critical window of opportunity to beat the legislative deadline that guarantees a fully functioning hospital remains open here only until 2020.
After sailing through the state Senate with no opposition, a bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, never made it to the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan. Senate Bill 1018, which would establish a Chestertown Rural Health Care Delivery Innovations Pilot Program through the Maryland Department of Health, was held up in the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee without being brought to the full floor for a vote.
“We heard that the problem was objections from the two agencies that regulate hospitals,” the Maryland Health Care Commission and the Health Services Cost Review Commission, Margie Elsberg, spokesperson for the Save the Hospital campaign, said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon.
She also cited the challenges of the 90-day legislative session’s calendar. The General Assembly’s “Crossover Day,” when the two legislative chambers send each other bills expected to pass, was March 18 — the day before SB 1018’s hearing.
Elsberg said another factor might have been the sudden death of House Speaker Michael Busch on Sunday, “casting a pall over the entire state capital.”
“Nobody had a taste for lobbying …. didn’t think it was the right thing to do. Any bill that hadn’t been considered by a committee was not heard,” she added.
Successes on the local front included passage of legislation that calls for an assessment of services provided at UM Shore Medical Center at Chestertown, comparing what is offered now to what was offered in fiscal 2015, and legislation that requires all members of the University of Maryland Medical System board of directors to resign and reapply for their positions if they want to return.
On Wednesday morning, UM Shore Regional Health, which has oversight of the hospital in Chestertown, issued a news release announcing the immediate resignation of John Dillon of Oxford as president of the health system's board of directors.
Dillon already resigned last month from the UMMS board amid allegations of a cozy business relationship with the hospital network that reported gross revenue of nearly $5 billion in fiscal year 2018.
Dillon’s consulting firm allegedly generated more than $150,000 per year in a contract with UMMS in 2017 and 2018.
Wednesday’s news release announcing Dillon’s resignation from the UM Shore Regional Health board cited his belief that leaving the board at this time “is in the best interest of UM Shore Regional Health to minimize the distraction caused by current discussions regarding University of Maryland Medical System Board relationships.”
Dillon’s term was set to end June 30, according to the news release.
“With regret, the Board of Directors has accepted John Dillon’s resignation, effective immediately,” board Vice Chairman Richard Loeffler of Cambridge said in the news release. “We are grateful to John for his years of service to UM Shore Regional Health and appreciate that his decision to step down is in an effort to allow the organization’s Board and leadership to remain singularly focused on our mission to create healthier communities together.”
Loeffler will serve as acting board chairman until July 1, when new officers are confirmed, according to the news release.
The Save the Hospital campaign of local doctors and community members spent the final days of the 2019 legislative session pushing for adoption of the Hershey-sponsored bill that would create a pilot program for rural health care delivery in Chestertown. Direct oversight would be by the state, not Easton-based UM Shore Regional Health, and there would be a local advisory committee that would include the county health officer and two physicians with privileges at the hospital.
“We flooded the committee members and two regulatory bodies,” Elsberg said Tuesday, estimating the total number of phone calls and emails at more than 1,000.
She portrayed the community engagement as “a stampede of help from people who were trying to come to the rescue of our hospital.”
Though disappointed the pilot program bill did not successfully navigate the House, Elsberg said she believed leaders of the two health care regulatory bodies are now paying attention.
That’s huge, she said, because the regulators realize they have to do something about rural health care.
Elsberg forwarded an email Katie Wunderlich, executive director of the Health Services Cost Review Commission, sent to a member of the Save the Hospital group. In the email, Wunderlich said she was “in awe and admiration of the dedication and commitment that the community of Chestertown has displayed in its support of your local hospital and delivery of health care services in Chestertown and the Mid-Shore.”
Wunderlich said in the email that the HSCRC “is also concerned about access to health care in rural areas. We are working collaboratively to identify ways to support the delivery of both hospital and non-hospital health care for residents of the Eastern Shore and other rural communities in Maryland, within the larger goal of improving health under the State’s contract with the federal government.
“Regardless of legislation, we remain committed to exploring solutions to protect rural health care access in Maryland.”
Senate Bill 707, signed by the governor in 2016, preserves inpatient services at the Chestertown hospital until 2020. UM Shore Regional Health has promised inpatient services will remain until 2022, while moving forward with plans to build a new hospital in Easton.
Save the Hospital leaders, skeptical of UM Shore Regional Health’s assurance that the Chestertown hospital will stay open for the additional two years, are going to take another swing at legislation in 2020.
“We’ve got one more General Assembly,” Elsberg said earlier this week. “So we can take (SB) 1018 back, so Steve Hershey has an entire year to massage the language, discuss it with the regulators, UMMS and the state Health Department, until the bill he introduces next year will be passed.”
What did pass, and now awaits the signature of Gov. Hogan, is Hershey-sponsored legislation that requires the Maryland Health Care Commission, in conjunction with the Office of Health Care Quality, to conduct an assessment of the types, quality and level of services provided at UM Shore Medical Center at Chestertown.
The report, to be submitted by Jan. 1, 2020, would seek to identify whether, on or after July 1, 2015, any services from UM Shore Medical Center at Chestertown were reduced or transferred to UM Shore Medical Center at Easton.
“That’s definitely a victory,” Elsberg said.
“The assessment is an important justification for our frustration at what’s been going on at the hospital” in Chestertown, she said.
Critics of UM Shore Regional Health say services have been stripped away, physicians have been siphoned off and staff have been cut to dangerously low numbers since UMMS took over what was then known as Chester River Health System in 2008.
Their concern is that if this pattern continues, the hospital here would be so far diminished that it would be only a glorified emergency room — what in polite company is referred to as a freestanding medical center.
State senators passed the bill, 46-0, on March 22 and the House of Delegates also unanimously endorsed it, 137-0, on April 6.
Hershey sponsored two other bills aimed at propping up the hospital in Chestertown. Both were referred to the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. They did not make it out of committee.
SB 1028 and SB 1029 focus on recruitment efforts for health care workers (such as nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants) in rural areas. Sen. Addie Eckardt, R-37-Mid-Shore, was a co-sponsor.