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The Star Democrat: Franchot discusses hospital's future, state issues

CHESTERTOWN — Following a pair of ceremonies honoring the achievements of Kent County residents, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot sat down for an interview March 4 to discuss state and local issues, including preserving services at the hospital in Chestertown.

Franchot was in town last week to hand out commendations and awards to the Historical Society of Kent County and Barbara Reed, former owner of Loving Touch Home Health Care LLC. He peppered those presentations by stating his support for maintaining University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Chestertown.

Many in the community are concerned about keeping the inpatient services at the hospital, especially after it was revealed that parent organizations University of Maryland Medical System and UM Shore Regional Health previously planned to terminate them. UM Shore Regional Health has committed to maintaining the hospital as an inpatient facility through 2022.

“Years from now we’re going to look back and be very happy that the hospital is still here. We have just begun to plant our flag on that issue. So everybody stay upbeat,” Franchot said during the awards presentation for Reed held at Washington College March 4.

In an interview that same day, Franchot discussed additional topics, such as tax season (“We’ve processed a million tax returns already, as of today.”), a proposal for the state minimum wage to be set at $15 an hour (“The devil’s in the details.”), his push for alcohol regulation reform (“The beer wars continue.”) and the antagonism he faces from the General Assembly (“It’s the legislature. No good deed goes unpunished.”).

On Feb. 1, Franchot heard about hospital concerns in a closed-door meeting with local leaders such as Washington College president Kurt Landgraf, Dixon Valve and Coupling Co. CEO Richard Goodall and Heron Point retirement community Executive Director Garrett Falcone.

“I did meet with an outstanding group of local citizens,” Franchot said March 4, “who very convincingly said the hospital we have needs to stay because it’s such an important ingredient in the community and it’s directly linked to the economy. And so I thought they made a lot of sense and I indicated that, where I can be helpful I would like to be.”

During the interview, Franchot spoke about how Reed and her former home health care business is the future of medicine. As such, he thinks the hospital in Chestertown could be designated a national or international center for excellence for aging in place and the specialized training and technologies such health care delivery requires.

In a report authored by James K. Elrod and John L. Fortenberry and found on the U.S. National Institutes of Health online library, centers for excellence such as Franchot discussed are “specialized programs within healthcare institutions which supply exceptionally high concentrations of expertise and related resources centered on particular medical areas.” Elrod and Fortenberry concluded in their report that centers for excellence “afford many advantages for healthcare providers and the populations they serve.”

Franchot said in the interview to keep as much of the hospital as possible while community leaders works out their vision for the facility’s future. He also suggested pushing UM Shore Regional Health to reinvest all of its profits from the sale last year of what was previously called Chester River Manor into the hospital, on top of what the health system already is putting into the facility. He put the number at $7 million.

In a March 12 email confirming the $7 million figure quoted by Franchot, Trena Williamson, UM Shore Regional Health regional director of communications and marketing, wrote that the organization’s board of directors earmarked those funds “for the delivery of health services to residents of Kent County.”

“Let’s make lemonade out of lemons right now. Everybody got dealt the wrong hand with the hospital’s acquisition and they feel shortchanged and they’re frustrated. Well, let’s make lemonade, that’s what I say. Do something special too, because every state has got this problem that we have, which is that acute care hospitals are almost completely underwater because of the ups and downs of health care payments. And you know, people are not going to hospitals like they used to,” Franchot said.

Franchot said Chestertown has more political clout than it ever utilizes.

When the state planned to shut down the Chester River bridge for several months for maintenance, it was Franchot who played a big role in keeping the crossing open during the project.

“The hospital’s a bigger lift, but it’s entirely doable if people come up with a workable vision. And I think they will. It was a pretty talented group I met with,” he said March 4.

As for his own office, tax season is in full swing, with Franchot saying an estimated 950,000 of the 1 million returns received as of March 4 were filed electronically. His office also is in the process of upgrading its technology to a more user-friendly platform, an effort expected to take four years to fully implement.

Meanwhile, members of the General Assembly are seeking to move alcohol, tobacco and fuel enforcement out of Franchot’s office and place it under the purview of a new commission, a move Franchot, a top state Democrat, suspects is due to his friendship with Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. Franchot has been pushing back against the proposal. He held a news conference last month deriding the measure as “reckless, costly and unnecessary legislation.”

“The legislature continues to be very antagonistic on the issue of my relationship with Hogan, I think is what is at the bottom of it,” Franchot said in the March 4 interview.

He also continues to receive pushback from large beer companies over his call for regulatory reform to bolster the craft brewery industry in Maryland. He thinks that down the road, every community will have craft brewer or two with a beer garden or tasting room, which will serve as “user-friendly, customer-friendly, family-friendly gathering places.”

“We’re not asking people to drink more beer. We’re just saying, if you want to have a cold beer, have it be a Maryland craft beer because that’s better for the economy and it’s made with Maryland employees using Maryland agricultural products. And people like the innovative, creative taste much more than Budweiser and Miller. Budweiser and Miller say we don’t like the new beers because they’re competitive. So we have a big beer war in Annapolis and we’ll see how that all ends up,” he said.

One piece of legislation currently under General Assembly consideration is raising Maryland’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

While saying he is progressive on helping working people get higher salaries, Franchot suggested caution in moving forward with the minimum wage proposal.

“We’re not really commenting on that other than to say whatever they do has got to make safe harbors for small businesses that would otherwise go out of business. Great idea — just make sure that the final product doesn’t results in a lot of small businesses closing,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said that the state’s finances going into the upcoming fiscal year are up $1.25 billion. He said that comes after ending the previous fiscal year June 30 in the black by $500 million and expected revenues to increase another $750 million due to federal tax cuts having the “counterintuitive consequence” of raising state returns and a court ruling bolstering Maryland’s coffers with sales tax on out-of-state online purchases.

Franchot said all of that $1.25 billion appears, though, to have “disappeared, and we’re talking about raising taxes.”

With Hogan in Des Moines, Iowa March 4 for a National Governors Association event, Franchot spoke about his friend being in prime presidential campaigning grounds. Hogan has not declared himself a presidential candidate, but according to media reports, is considering mounting a primary challenge against fellow Republican Donald Trump.

“Gov. Hogan’s out in Iowa today,” Franchot said at the Historical Society of Kent County gathering. “He’s a great guy and I wish him well.”

Franchot reiterated those comments during the interview, saying Hogan is out there, enjoying himself. He said he has spoken with Hogan about the governor running for president.

“I said, ‘I don’t really see any downside to you running. You’re term limited. Half the people in your party don’t like Trump but they don’t have any alternative.’ But it’s a hard thing, because if he were to announce, the dogs of war would be unleashed on him,” Franchot said. “I want to protect my friends. I want to make sure I have someone to talk to in Annapolis.”

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