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Critics warn expedited procurement for Western Maryland Hospital Center is veiled attempt at privatization

A look at Western Maryland Hospital Center in Washington County. File photo by Hannah Gaskill.

Employees at the Western Maryland Health Center like Brian Miller said its unique status in the Washington County area provides not only specialized care, but also a family atmosphere.

Miller, a social worker at the hospital in Hagerstown for 31 years, said a state Department of Health proposal that seeks expedited procurement approval to find a private entity to provide similar services is a veiled attempt to try to close or privatize the hospital.

Miller, who joined other workers, union representatives and hospital supporters during a virtual press conference Monday, said it’s the only hospital in the western part of the state that offers specific services such as respiratory and brain injury care. The hospital, which provides health care for low-income and undocumented residents, also serves as a long-term care facility licensed as a skilled nursing home unit.

“Losing Western Maryland Center would be very devastating to the patients who have built strong [connections] here at the facility with fellow patients, staff members and with members of the local community who come and participate and volunteer at the facility,” Miller said. “For the patients’ families, it would be a devastating loss for them. They would have to face sending loved ones more often far away and have the difficulty in keeping contact with them.”

The state’s plan will be reviewed Wednesday by the Board of Public Works (BPW) through an expedited procurement process to approve two contracts that could total up to $125 million. But it isn’t quite clear what the state is hoping to achieve.

A definition summarizes that the procedure can be done if an immediate and serious need for services, materials or supplies “cannot be met through normal procurement methods and are required to avoid or mitigate serious damage to public health, safety or welfare.”

The BPW agenda notes the health department requests approval to maintain a “provider of last resort” for long-term acute care and brain injury services and for a skilled nursing facility at the Western Maryland Health Center. But those who oppose the proposal say the plan doesn’t note any companies interested in providing the services.

A primary reason for the request, according to the health department, is the impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on the state’s health workforce, “resulting in increased staffing challenges and expenses.”

“MDH is focused on minimizing potential future major infrastructure failures at this hospital, given its age, which may result in the need for emergency actions regarding patient safety and could include emergency procurements;” Chase Cook, spokesperson for the health department, said in an email Monday. “And ensure sufficient hospital staffing and service quality for patients. Previous administrations have ignored state healthcare facilities for over 25 years, which has resulted in underinvestment.”

A health department 2041 facilities master plan released in September 2021 notes the hospital was built in 1957 and rated the facility as “poor.” However, the plan stated the facility and maintenance staff “manage to deliver quality patient care.”

Cook said the state would “responsibly transition” about 43 nursing home and long-term acute care patients to modern health care facilities in the community as part of the procurement.

“We will continue to control patient [and] resident admissions and patient service quality,” he said. “We remain responsible for these patients and will continue to ensure they receive the quality care they need. MDH’s goal remains collaborative solutions that result in quality healthcare for patients.”

Shareese Churchill, spokesperson for state Treasurer Dereck E. Davis (D), who sits on the three-member public works board, said in an email Monday that Davis is “currently reviewing the item.”

Two current BPW members — Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) — will step down in January due to term limits for Hogan and Franchot’s unsuccessful run in the July primary election for the Democratic nomination for governor.

It remains unclear whether the new Board of Public Works, which will take office in January, could change plans if the current board approves the procurement proposal Wednesday.

Former Del. Aruna Miller, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, said “there could be [an] opportunity” to assess that policy, if she and gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore are elected in next month’s general election.

“You can rest assure which side we’re going to be as far as this is concerned,” Miller said during the online press conference opposing the state’s proposal. “We want to make sure that this hospital remains in public hands because there is no reason for it to change.”

Union leaders said the state considered a plan to close the Hagerstown hospital in 2016.

The plan resurfaced again this year to close the hospital and another state-run facility, Deer’s Head Hospital Center in Salisbury, but budget negotiations during this year’s legislative session kept both places open.

Patrick Moran, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 3, the state employee union, said he’s confident the public works board will support the community and hospital staff.

Hogan administration officials “failed at this six years ago. They are now trying again as they are leaving the building and turning the lights off of their administration,” said Moran, who added the union represents about 100 Western Maryland hospital staff. “It’s unfortunate that they are going to be perceived as taking such a cheap and desperate shot as they leave office.”