Prince George's County wins health enterprise zone bid

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Local,Maryland,Matt Connolly,Prince Georges County

Prince George's County's plan to revamp its health system is getting a million-dollar boost from the state.

The county won a bid for one of five new health enterprise zones as part of a pilot program run by Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. Zones get tax credits, grants and loan assistance to improve the health of some of the state's poorest residents.

Prince George's will receive about $1.1 million of the program's $4 million yearly budget. Each zone lasts for four years, though recipients can lose funding if the state deems their performance poor enough.

"These are areas with high concentrations of poor health, particularly with chronic diseases such as asthma, hypertension, diabetes and others related to obesity," said Carlessia Hussein, Maryland's director of minority health and health disparities. "It's a different way of doing business in the health care sector."

The Prince George's zone will be based in Capitol Heights, which the proposal says leads the county in poor health outcomes. The county is planning to bring in 25 new health care providers -- 11 full-time primary care physicians, five full-time nurses, two full-time dentists and seven community health workers -- and create five primary care practices.

The goal, according to the proposal, is a reduction in emergency room visits for those with chronic conditions, a reduction in infants with low birth weight and a general expansion of the area's health workforce.

The county is in the midst of a health care overhaul championed by County Executive Rushern Baker. The plan's cornerstone is a $600 million hospital slated to receive $200 million in state aid. The hospital is expected to open by 2017.

State support like the health enterprise zone and hospital funding is key when 25,000 of the 32,000 Marylanders who go out of state for hospital visits are Prince George's residents, according to Baker spokesman Scott Peterson.

"It impacts everything in Prince George's County," Peterson said. "It's in line with the need for more physicians."

Capitol Heights is within one of 14 ZIP codes in the county with a primary care physician-to-population ratio of 1-to-3,500 or worse, according to a July 2012 report by the University of Maryland. The federally recommended ratio is 1-to-2,000 or better.

"County residents experience a higher rate of these chronic diseases than those in most of the neighboring counties and in several cases, at a rate higher than the state average," the report says. "Racial and ethnic differences reveal even greater disparities."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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