Laurel Regional Hospital… Closing?

For the past few days, I’ve been excited about the very real prospect of seeing a fitting, lasting tribute to Stefanie Watson at Laurel Regional Hospital. The former emergency room night admissions clerk who was murdered in 1982 was originally honored by having the lobby’s family room officially dedicated in her memory; but sadly, that seems to have fallen by the wayside in the subsequent decades as the hospital expanded under new management. (That’s not the least of which has fallen, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

After my Laurel Historical Society program on the cold case being solved, I wrote to Laurel Mayor Craig Moe and City Council Member Fred Smalls about an idea I had to rectify this. Rather than another lobby plaque which may once again be misplaced with future expansion, I proposed that the street behind the hospital—the as-of-yet-unnamed road that leads to the emergency room; the very road that Stefanie used to drive to and from her work shift—be officially named “Stefanie Watson Way”.

STEFANIE-WATSON-WAY-1 STEFANIE-WATSON-WAY-2

I added that the street name dedication ceremony would also be an excellent opportunity to commend the Laurel and Prince George’s County Police Departments for having the foresight to preserve the evidence that ultimately solved her murder 31 years later. Moreover, it would bring great closure to Stefanie’s family and the community, as the original tribute was also made at the beginning of what would become an agonizing 30-year cold case.

That case has now been solved, and I can think of no better way to reinstate the lost tribute to a much-loved hospital employee who brought so much comfort and kindness to emergency room patients and families in her short time here. I think it would also be a tremendously positive story for the hospital itself—which, let’s face it, needs all the positive press it can get. (It’s currently a 2-out-of-5-star facility on Google Reviews, and most of the stories you hear from patients are literally the stuff of nightmares.)

That being said, I was thrilled when I received replies from both Mayor Moe and Mr. Smalls this week—and they’re in favor of the street naming idea!

Mr. Smalls has sent my request to Laurel Regional Hospital President John Spearman and Dimensions Healthcare Chairman Judge Phil Nichols for review.

Well, imagine my surprise when I saw this headline today:

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.25.23 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.25.39 PM

Um, what?

Evidently, that was the reaction of Laurel’s city leaders, as well. This “decision” was apparently made unilaterally by Dimensions Healthcare without any notice to the community at large. That includes Mayor Moe, who responded with this assessment:

 Laurel Mayor Critical Of Plan To Close Laurel Regional Hospital

Today the City of Laurel government along with residents and businesses of the Laurel-Beltsville area learned of a decision to close the full service Laurel Regional Hospital. This decision was made in closed door sessions with no community involvement and without discussions with local elected officials. It was based on a consultant’s report that contained no evaluation of the potential to sell the hospital and the campus.

As the Mayor of the City of Laurel, I am deeply concerned about the tremendous impact on the safety and well-being of the residents of northern Prince George’s County and surrounding areas, and I am also troubled by the loss of many jobs for Prince George’s County/Laurel residents that would follow this closure. I believe this action is a direct result of poor leadership and management on the part of Dimensions Healthcare System.

Dimensions Healthcare System is a not-for-profit hospital system that was formed in 1982 to serve the residents of Prince George’s County and surrounding areas. Throughout its history, Dimensions has been plagued by financial and operational issues that the leadership failed to address. The decision to close this full service hospital is yet another failure of Dimensions executives to operate their facilities in an efficient manner. I question why the Dimensions leadership failed to provide the public with full disclosure of the information contained in the consultant’s scope of work. Why was the local Laurel Regional Hospital Board of Directors kept out of the discussions regarding the future of the Hospital? Was the closing of the full service Laurel Regional Hospital part of the justification of need for the new regional medical center?

We understand that the plan of Dimensions Healthcare leaders is to re-open the facility as a limited service facility. Until the Dimensions Healthcare System is replaced I believe this poor substitute will fail as well. Turning this hospital into a limited service facility will also adversely affect the already stressed ambulance service in the region. Ambulances will be required to go out of service for significantly longer periods of time to transport patients to other facilities.

I support the Prince George’s Regional Medical Center plans but not at the expense of closing the full service Laurel Regional Hospital. The Laurel-Beltsville area and Prince George’s County residents deserve better. I call upon all affected residents, employees and businesses to contact County Executive Rushern Baker, County Councilmember Mary Lehman and Dimensions Healthcare Board of Directors to express dissatisfaction with this tragic decision and request that the hospital be sold to another hospital management organization, either for profit or not-for-profit, or even look into bringing  more specialized healthcare to the current hospital.

I look forward to future discussions about OUR regional hospital.

Craig A. Moe

Laurel Mayor

Needless to say, it was like a punch to the gut. I expected to encounter some red tape in my quest for “Stefanie Watson Way” to become the newest street in Laurel; I did not expect the very hospital itself to suddenly announce its intent to cease operations (no pun intended).

Granted, this is all very new information, (much like the recent and ongoing snafu with Laurel’s historic Main Street train station) but from what I’m hearing, the hospital as a whole isn’t planning to completely disappear—but it is proposing to drastically downsize and essentially change to an outpatient only facility. According to the Laurel Leader, the Dimensions board voted to replace the hospital with a new, $24 million ambulatory care center by 2018:

“The change is an effort to curb the multi-million dollar losses Laurel Regional has seen in recent years, and will result in limited hospital services as well as considerable job loss in Laurel as the new facility will only provide 30 inpatient beds.”

“The move is part of a state trend to move health care out of inpatient hospitals and into outpatient facilities, Dimensions said. The new Laurel facility would continue to provide emergency services, outpatient surgery and diagnostic services currently offered by Laurel Regional. The county has plans to create a Prince George’s Regional Medical Center, which would provide the full-service medical support no longer found in Laurel.”

Nope. That doesn’t make any sense to me, either.

Admittedly, I don’t know the first thing about hospital administration, health care, or any of that stuff. But I do know this: you don’t close a functioning hospital in a growing town for any reason. What they’re proposing sounds like a glamorized urgent care center, which Laurel doesn’t need. What it does need, evidently, is a complete hospital overhaul to weed out the people who’ve steadily ruined this once proud facility.

Stefanie Watson moved to Laurel in 1981 in order to work at what was then called the Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital. The hospital, which had just opened in 1978, was a much different place back then—before Dimensions Healthcare would take over, and change the name to Laurel Regional. In hindsight, that was probably the first clue that things weren’t going to get any “greater”.

Ballpoint pen, circa 1980s.  (Lost Laurel collection)

Ballpoint pen, circa 1980s.
(Lost Laurel collection)

Obviously, the first priority is to ensure that Laurel’s hospital retains its complete functionality. Not only that, but it must improve its quality of care across the board. Its mismanagement cannot be allowed to continue to the point where it’s only serving patients in an ambulatory, outpatient manner. Remember—urgent care centers are terrific in a pinch, when you want to avoid the emergency room; (heck, there’s a brand new one at the new Towne Centre at Laurel) but they’re no substitute for a real, bona fide hospital if, God forbid, you should ever need one.

Regardless of what happens with the hospital itself, it would be a shame if the consideration for “Stefanie Watson Way” now gets overlooked in the wake of this larger dilemma. Let’s name that street after Stefanie Watson already, and keep it there throughout whatever changes come. Let her name serve as a constant reminder of the way Laurel’s hospital should be run.

As the September 30, 1982 Laurel Leader reported—at the time of her original memorial:

“The memorial, said a staff physician who worked closely with the murdered woman, was fitting, for she considered her job as an admitting clerk as more than filling out insurance forms. Watson never failed to take the time to console families of the sick and injured, bringing them coffee while she worked throughout the night shift and giving them a chance to talk about their anxiety and grief.”

She was “…always caring and concerned for all the people she met… ingenious and never cynical, even when patients or their families seemed undeserving of her patience and thoughtfulness.”

Contacts for both the hospital and street naming issue:

RUSHERN L. BAKER III, County Executive
Office of County Executive
County Administration Building, Room 5032
14741 Governor Oden Bowie Drive,
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772 – 3070
e-mail: countyexecutive@co.pg.md.us

MARY A. LEHMAN, Prince George’s County Council, District 1
County Administration Building, 2nd floor
14741 Governor Oden Bowie Drive
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772 – 3070
e-mail: malehman@co.pg.md.us

DIMENSIONS HEALTHCARE SYSTEM
Board of Directors
Prince George’s County Hospital Center
3001 Hospital Drive
Cheverly, Maryland  20785

Additional sources:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ll-laurel-regional-replaced-by-outpatient-facility-20150731-story.html

http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Laurel-Regional-Hospital-Downsizing-to-Become-Ambulance-Care-Center-320317391.html

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