CHESTERTOWN — Save the Hospital organizers appeared before the Kent County Commissioners last week requesting they pledge only conditional support to the state for University of Maryland Shore Regional Health’s efforts to build a regional hospital in Easton.
The condition Dr. Gerard O’Connor and Margie Elsberg, a member of the Chester River Health Foundation board, seek is that the medical system return UM Shore Medical Center at Chestertown “to good health.”
UM Shore Regional Health and parent organization University of Maryland Medical System have long had plans m to build a regional hospital in Easton, one that would replace what was previously called Memorial Hospital.
At the commissioners meeting Sept. 4, O’Connor said that while UM Shore Regional Health is seeking to flood the state with letters of support for a new regional hospital in Easton, Save the Hospital asks that any support coming from Kent County carry a caveat.
“When Shore Regional Health returns our hospital to good health, and when Shore Health joins Kent County in convincing the General Assembly and the governor that we need legislation and funding to maintain our hospital long into the future ... only then will we support the effort to build a new hospital in Easton,” the conditional statement from Save the Hospital reads.
Last month, UM Shore Regional Health President and CEO Ken Kozel confirmed what has been feared among many in Kent County, that plans had previously been afoot to terminate inpatient care at the Chestertown hospital. UM Shore Regional Health has committed, though, to retaining inpatient care through 2022.
Plans to turn the facility into a freestanding medical center — “a glorified emergency room” as O’Connor called it — have been scrapped in favor of a new effort to get the hospital a special state designation that would come with more financial support. Legislation failed to move forward for that in the General Assembly last year.
Kozel said last month that UM Shore Regional Health will “take another swing at it” during the next General Assembly session, which starts in January.
O’Connor told the commissioners at their Sept. 4 meeting that the Save the Hospital organizers are not sure just how hard UM Shore Regional Health plans to push for a rural hospital designation from the state.
O’Connor said he and Dr. Wayne Benjamin formed Save the Hospital in 2016 after learning “a dirty little secret”: UM Shore Regional Health was going to close inpatient care despite the fact that administrators had been saying nothing was going to change at the Chestertown hospital.
“I’m proud to say that every doctor that we have on staff to this day is very supportive of our move to maintain inpatient care,” O’Connor said.
He called UM Shore Regional’s Health promise to maintain inpatient beds through 2022 “meaningless” because it would take the medical system that long to build its new facility in Easton. He agreed that a hospital is needed in Easton, but not at the cost of inpatient services in Chestertown.
Elsberg and O’Connor also attended the Chestertown council meeting on Sept. 4 that started at 7:30 p.m., after the county commissioners meeting had ended. They sat in the audience and were not on the agenda.
Kozel and Kathy Elliott, hired earlier this summer as the on-site executive director of the Chestertown hospital, were on the agenda.
From the back of the room, O’Connor stood up and said he was aware of “very subtle things that are going on that I’m not happy with ... that goes with a plan to eliminate inpatient care.”
“There’s no tangible feeling that I get that they want to keep us open,” he said.
When asked by an audience member what UM Shore Regional Health was doing to support the hospital in Chestertown, Kozel listed recruitment of new primary care providers and specialists, including a full-time cardiologist and pulmonologist, and a part-time ear, nose and throat specialist. He said they hoped to recruit a general surgeon.
One of the missions of UM Shore Regional Health is to create healthier communities. That means reducing hospital admissions to “only those that are truly necessary,” Kozel told the Chestertown audience.
Earlier that evening at the county commissioners’ meeting, O’Connor raised issues with the rural hospital designation being sought, saying it would take the hospital down to 15 inpatient beds with no intensive care unit. He said an ICU is necessary in case a patient’s condition deteriorates and acute care is required.
“You cannot have inpatient care without an ICU,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said if the legislature does not given UM Shore Medical Center at Chestertown the special designation, plans will revert to turning it into a freestanding medical facility.
“So they have nothing to lose. They are in a win-win situation. And unfortunately, I don’t see any tangible effort on their part to maintain and sustain us as an inpatient facility,” O’Connor said. “Save the Hospital believes for that reason that Shore Regional Health might not try to win legislation to keep us open. I see no effort on their part to keep us open.”
Elsberg is increasingly concerned about the situation at the hospital. She said as doctors have retired, moved or decreased the number of patients they see, UM Shore Regional Health has done little physician recruitment to fill the gaps.
“That means Kent County and our hospital do not now have the number of primary care doctors and specialists we need,” she said.
She said other positions have been reduced and the executive director position is a part-time role. When Elliott was hired to fill the position, the news release from UM Shore Regional Health said she also would maintain her previous responsibilities as the hospital’s director of nursing.
Kozel introduced Elliott to the Chestertown council at the meeting Sept. 4. “What appealed to us most is her commitment and passion for this community,” Kozel said.
Elliott is a Kent County native whose affiliation with the Chestertown hospital began 30 years ago. She acknowledged that her background is in nursing and that “there’s a lot for me to learn,” but she said she was embracing the challenges of her new role.
“This position is important to me,” she said. “I’m looking at it as I’m bringing the bedside to the boardroom from a nursing perspective and bringing the boardroom to the bedside so that the people that are closest to our patients understand what we’re doing.”
She said she would participate in recruitment of doctors to Kent County, which is a new role for her. She said she would be part of the “team” involved in recruitment.
“The hospital is important to me because it’s my job and it is my community that we serve,” Elliott said.
Elsberg told the county commissioners that with the loss of 24/7 coverage and the reduction of staff and services, more patients who could have otherwise been cared for close to home at the Chestertown hospital are being transferred to Easton. She said Kozel denies that is happening.
Still, Elsberg questions how it is that with 31 state-authorized beds at the Chestertown hospital, she is being told that only five are filled daily on average.
“Are patients suddenly not sick or are they just being sent to Easton?” she said, noting that she recognizes efforts to keep people out of hospitals. “But the severely low number of patients doesn’t, for us, add up.”
Elliott talked about the census at last week’s Chestertown council meeting. She said the average daily patient count is 14, with seasonal peaks and valleys, and the hospital is staffed accordingly.
Kozel said “based on today’s numbers and trendings,” the projected need will be 15 beds in 2022 and beyond.
Elsberg said the issues surrounding UM Shore Medical Center at Chestertown amount to a threat to Kent County’s economic future.
She said large employers like Dixon Valve and Coupling Co. and Washington College will face a new challenge in recruiting young professionals to the area without a functioning hospital. She said it threatens the real estate market and the future of retirement communities.
O’Connor urged the commissioners and Kent County residents not to sign the general letter of support UM Shore Regional Health has sent out.
“I even got an email asking me to sign it, which I thought was ironic,” O’Connor said.
He said Save the Hospital has drafted its own letter of conditional support. He hopes for a deluge of letters to the state seeking conditional support.
“We strongly recommend that you insist that Shore Regional Health give our county the hospital and physician services that the University of Maryland Medical System promised from the beginning nine years ago. If and when they keep their promises, Save the Hospital will be happy to support their hospital effort,” O’Connor told the commissioners.