Cigarette Tax Could Save Hospital - Southern Maryland Headline News

Cigarette Tax Could Save Hospital

By SHARAHN D. BOYKIN, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - Grantley Adams fears he will loose his job and have to relocate if Prince George's Hospital Center closes.

Adams, a psychiatric nurse and member of the hospital's health care worker union, also fears for his patients. Many of them have come to the hospital after another hospital closed, he said.

"It's very stressful," Adams said.

The county-owned hospital - the largest in southern Maryland and major source of health care for Medicaid patients - is struggling financially. Many of its patients are either uninsured or can not afford to pay their bills.

Money from the county has helped keep the doors open, but the situation is still precarious. So on Thursday, hospital workers, Prince George's legislators and the General Assembly's Legislative Black Caucus joined health care groups to begin an effort to have money from a proposed $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax used to help the Prince George's Hospital and other financially struggling hospitals in the state.

They were joined by one of the most powerful legislators in Maryland.

"One of the things that many working men and women are loosing sight of is the fact that they can have access to affordable heath care," said Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, the speaker of the House of Delegates.

The effort, led by Sen. Verna L. Jones, D-Baltimore, would siphon $10 million a year over four years in funds for struggling hospitals. "I think that the monies that are going to be raised will help to deal with uncompensated care which is the larger issue," Jones said.

Despite opposition from two of the state's most powerful Democrats, Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George's, and Gov. Martin O'Malley, Jones said she doubts the governor would veto "this type of bill."

About 80 health care union members, dressed in purple t-shirts that read "1199 SEIU," attended the news conference to hear about the proposal that could save their jobs. The hospital employs 1,500 union members, according to Quincey Gamble, a spokesman for the union.

"As health care workers we see every day the deadly effects of smoking on the patients that we care for, and we believe the cost of a dollar per pack of cigarettes is not a huge cost to save the lives of so many of our children who will never begin smoking if we raise the price," Gamble said.

Even though the proposal does not specifically name Prince George's Hospital, lawmakers and lobbyist confirmed that they expect to use the money to keep the hospital open.

"I don't know the financial situation of other hospitals, but I can tell you it definitely applies to Prince George's Hospital Center," said Glenn Schneider, executive director of the Health Care for All Coalition, in an interview. "Clearly we need to salvage this hospital, keep it afloat, so people can get the care that they need."

Proponents emphasized that the money for struggling hospitals was contingent on the cigarette tax.

"This can happen if we get the full dollar increase," said Vincent DeMarco, president of Health Care for All Coalition.

The hospital was temporarily rescued from its financial woes with $5 million from the Prince George's County Council recently.

But the money came with conditions. Dimensions Health Care Systems, which manages the hospital, had to agree to work with a management consultant, create a county-approved cost savings plan and reserve a number of the seats on the company's board for county council members.

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