Berlin Unable To Commit $50K To AGH Expansion

BERLIN – Atlantic General Hospital (AGH) wants to add more services and space and is asking Berlin for a $50,000 donation to support the expansion.

AGH has raised $348,000, half the matching amount for a $700,000 state of Maryland grant. The hospital must raise the remainder by late July 2009.

“We’re also requesting donations from the town of Ocean City as well as Worcester County,” said AGH President and CEO Michael Franklin.

The amount requested would be difficult for Berlin to meet, officials said.

“It’s a hefty price tag for us,” Councilwoman Paula Lynch told Franklin when he made his request at Monday night’s town council meeting.

“It’s a lot of money for us,” Councilwoman Ellen Lang agreed.

“Can this be made in a pledge format over a couple of years?” asked town Council Vice President Gee Williams.

Yes, if the money is donated by the July 2009 deadline, Franklin said.

The hospital will pay the $1.4 million price tag of the expansion up front, he said, only to be reimbursed through the State of Maryland grant later.

The town, Lynch said, has a policy of not making donations.

“On the other hand, where would our town be if the hospital did not exist?” wondered Williams.

The addition of the hospital on Berlin’s east side has increased property values and uplifted the town’s economy, as well as improving the quality of life for townsfolk, he said.        

Williams does not think it is a coincidence that the revitalization of Berlin’s downtown area began when the hospital was built.

“I think we’d be really hard pressed to come up with a dollar figure of what Atlantic General means to this town,” said Berlin Mayor Tom Cardinale. “You’re such a vital part of this community.”

According to Franklin, AGH put $59,947,187 back into the local community in 2007 through salaries, construction and business with local vendors and services.

“I’d like to suggest this. We need to finish our budget,” said Lang. “See where our general fund is. See what we can come up with, keep you in mind and let you know.”

Councilman Elroy Brittingham said the town will be hard pressed to meet worthwhile requests like that of AGH.

“You’re like the fire department. You can’t turn the fire department down. You can’t turn the hospital down,” said Brittingham. “I guess we got our work cut out for us.”

The hospital, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, has continued to expand services since its opening, recently adding a stroke center and a women’s diagnostic center and an enlarged and improved the emergency department.

The new Barrett Medical Office Building finished last fall added a wound care center, women’s health center and an endoscopy center to the hospital complex.

The hospital has seven satellite offices in local communities and has increased the number of doctors in the community from six to 163 since it opened.

The emergency room has seen a 13-percent increase over the last year, since the 30-minute promise was put into effect, Franklin said.

“We’ve been able to organize things better so we can see people faster,” Franklin said. “We were the fastest growing emergency room in the State of Maryland in the calendar year 2007.”

Plans for the expansion call for a 9,700-square-foot facility offering a larger primary care clinic, a child advocacy center, a comprehensive diabetes patient education and care center and outpatient mental health services.

The primary care clinic will continue to offer care for health issues not severe enough for the emergency room, during longer hours. 

People who do not have a doctor or who cannot get an appointment with their regular physician can use the clinic, through an appointment walk-in.

The clinic, the only one in the area to offer financial aid for patients who cannot pay for their care, sees primarily the uninsured and underinsured.

“People don’t get sick Monday through Friday,” Franklin said. “We’re trying to provide expanded services in order to meet those types of needs.”

The clinic currently sees 12,000 patients a year, but that number is projected to increase by 50 percent in coming years.

The child advocacy center, the only one on the Lower Eastern Shore to provide forensic examinations of child victims, will provide medical care and exams to child victims of abuse and assault. Worcester County sees about 475 such cases annually and about 100 of those will need a forensic medical exam, Franklin said.

Diabetics make up 14 percent of the Worcester County population, compared to 7 percent in the rest of the state, so there is a great need for diabetes management.

Another part of the expansion will target mental health.

“We have no real location for outpatient mental health in this community,” Franklin said of the fourth component of the expansion.

More and more patients come to the emergency room with mental health problems, he said, including chemical dependency.