Officials Maintain County ‘Never Made A Pledge To AGH’

SNOW HILL –   Worcester County Commissioner Chip Bertino on Tuesday defended a county decision to cut funding to Atlantic General Hospital.

At a meeting of the commissioners Tuesday, Bertino disputed a claim by Atlantic General Hospital (AGH) CEO and President Michael Franklin that the county wasn’t following through with a five-year funding pledge. Franklin voiced the assertion in a statement to the press last week after the commissioners voted to eliminate a $175,000 grant to the hospital from the coming year’s budget. Bertino stressed that while the county might have cut funding to AGH it was directing substantial resources to emergency medical services.

“The commissioners are crafting a budget against a backdrop of revenue and expense uncertainty brought about by COVID-19,” Bertino said. “Despite our best intentions there will be disappointment. For me, in this landscape of questionable revenue projections it is best that limited funding available be directed to our emergency responders… When a person calls 911 and the siren sounds we must ensure that the person who answers the call is equipped and trained.”

Last week, the commissioners voted 4-3 to eliminate a $175,000 AGH funding contribution from the coming fiscal year’s budget. Bertino, who along with Commissioner Jim Bunting, Commissioner Joe Mitrecic and Commissioner Ted Elder supported the cut, told his fellow commissioners he wanted to address the issue because “misinformation has swirled around that decision.”

“If the quotes attributed to AGH president and CEO Michael Franklin in local newspapers are correct, he believes the county did not fulfil a five-year funding pledge,” Bertino said. “That is not true. AGH Foundation board member Steve Green, publisher of the Maryland Coast Dispatch, wrote last week in his popular Between the Lines column that ‘The county’s decision to renege on its capital campaign pledge of $100,000 annually in year four of five is appalling.’ He closed with ‘It’s shameful and sets a terrible example for many of us in private industry who have similar ongoing pledges.’”

Bertino said the headline in The Dispatch, which said the county would not fulfil its pledge, and Franklin’s assertions about the pledge were inaccurate.

“The commissioners never made a pledge to AGH for five years or any other number of years,” he said.

According to Bertino in February of 2017 Franklin told the commissioners he would seek a $1 million pledge to be paid over five years.

“During its deliberations that year the commissioners voted not to commit county funds to an ongoing pledge drive but did approve a single 100k grant for the capital campaign,” Bertino said. “And in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 AGH received one-time grants as well.”

He added that the letter sent to the hospital each year with grant information advised that the commissioners were providing one-time allocations. The Dispatch received the letters to confirm Bertino’s remarks.

Bertino objected to Franklin’s comment that the commissioners didn’t see the need to provide the community with health services. He said the county’s 911 center was a responsibility of the county and that the commissioners allocated funding each year to volunteer fire and EMS companies.

“Emergency medical first responders are critical and essential to health care in our county,” he said. “If you or a loved one is in a distress situation you want to know you’re in expert hands. We need to continue working to address holistically the needs of all fire companies and EMS providers and not seek a piecemeal approach.”

Bertino said the fact that Sussex County did not support AGH had not played into his decision to vote against hospital funding.

“For me, the actions of another county make no difference at all to what Worcester County should or should not do,” he said. “I sympathize with the disappointment felt by Mr. Franklin and Mr. Green and others because of the commissioners’ vote last week. By now though I hope they recognize the county never pledged or made a promise of multi-year allocations. Directing financial resources to other essential health care concerns within our county in no way diminishes the high regard AGH has held nor overlooks the vital contribution it makes to our county.”

Mitrecic thanked Bertino for his comments.

“I think that’s very well said,” he said.

Bunting agreed.

“The fact is we did not renege…,” Bunting said. “It’ll all come out in the end. I appreciate AGH hospital but I think we also did the right thing by putting the money best where we need it. My understanding is the hospital did reach all their goals for their fundraising and they’re in good shape.”

Though the hospital did not offer comments this week, Franklin said last week, “This is a very disappointing decision.  … It is unfortunate that some of the commissioners do not see the need to continue to provide our expanding community with these much needed health care services.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.