Union members and advocates on Monday called on the Board of Public Works to deny the state health department permission to approve vendors and execute two private health care contracts on their own.

Privatizing health care services for the Western Maryland Hospital Center in Hagerstown would effectively eradicate services for people who can’t afford to get health care elsewhere, critics of the contracts said. Without the regional center, those patients would likely have to seek care far away from their families and support systems. Advocates are saying the Hogan administration is doing this to prioritize the state budget over patient care.

Health department spokesperson Chase Cook said the contracts align with a 20-year plan, published last year, to downsize and close multiple public healthcare facilities across the state.

“Board approval would allow MDH to move forward and responsibly transition about 43 nursing home and long term acute care patients at our Hagerstown hospital to modern healthcare facilities in the community,” Cook wrote in an email. The current census of the facility is 43 patients, according to Cook.

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The call to action came ahead of Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting where the three-member board will decide whether to grant the Maryland Department of Health special permission to execute two contracts for the Western Maryland Hospital Center, each worth tens of millions of dollars. Those powers are typically reserved for the Board of Public Works except under emergency or urgent circumstances. The board is comprised of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Dereck Davis, both Democrats.

The health department requested the permission for contracts for long-term acute care and brain injury and skilled nursing facility services. In documents prepared ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, the department blamed COVID-19 for increased staffing challenges and expenses, which they called “urgent circumstances.” The requests for proposal for both contracts say that although the approved vendor or vendors would be responsible for running the program, the state health department eventually plans to “transition this Program out of WMHC into privately run facilities.”

But Democratic politicians, union leaders and members of the Maryland American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 3 and the Maryland affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers decried the resource depletion at the hands of Hogan’s administration of the unique public health care resource. The hospital takes on complex physical and psychological cases, often for low-income patients or those without health insurance.

They said the Hogan administration’s attempt to close the hospital in 2016 and more recent documented plans to close it for good have caused nursing staff to flee to nearby hospitals.

“They’re producing the hysteria and the staffing shortage themselves,” said Maryland AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran. “It’s not happening as a result of people not willing to come there”

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Rosemary Wertz, field coordinator for AFT, said Western Maryland Health Center is experiencing the same staffing shortages as other hospitals, and the way to address these problems is through better pay.

“This is not a new problem,” Wertz said during the Monday virtual news conference.

Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Aruna Miller, a former state delegate, said the depletion of a regional healthcare resource “comes at a cost” to residents and community members.

“Access to high quality and affordable healthcare is not a privilege,” she said. “It’s a basic human right.”

Susan O’Brien, a spokesperson for Franchot’s office, said, “The comptroller is going to have a lot of questions on this item.” Through a spokesperson, Davis’s office said he’s still reviewing the proposal.

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