Earlier this month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser revealed plans to construct a new health care facility that would replace United Medical Center (UMC) in Southeast. The new 125-bed hospital, to be operated by The George Washington University in Northwest, would open in 2023 on St. Elizabeths East Campus.
While the Friday morning announcement sparked interest among residents living east of the Anacostia River who had long demanded an upgrade to and expansion of health care amenities, it also elicited concerns about the construction timeline, service capacity, and access to quality care for low-income residents.
“Will this hospital be sustainable and why will it take five years, especially when you can build schools within a year?” Lorenzo Anthony Green, an ANC commissioner representing the Deanwood neighborhood in Northeast, said as he recounted a conversation with a family member who, during a medical emergency, bemoaned what she described as a lack of viable choices.
Though Green expressed some relief that D.C. officials brought forth a plan for a new health care facility in Southeast, he said his gripes revolve around the ease with which patients, particularly those with Medicaid, can receive adequate emergency care and other services. The current revenue model, Green said, doesn’t incentivize that population’s care, as seen in the budget troubles facing hospitals in the eastern part of the city, where a large concentration of low-income residents lives.
Citywide, more than 75 percent of Medicaid patients visit emergency rooms instead of a primary care provider, which places a strain on the city’s highly frequented facilities. In response to this dilemma, Green said he unsuccessfully fought for the opening of urgent care centers on Sheriff Road and Hunt Place, both in Northeast.
“The standard hospital model has changed,” Green said as he expressed his demand for transparency from the mayor’s office around the proposed timeline for the new hospital. “Hospitals aren’t affordable in certain areas where people are Medicaid recipients and don’t have income.
“I don’t want the city to put itself in a position to kick this can down the road,” he said. “There should be more details about the project. We don’t want to see a UMC, part two.”
For decades, UMC, a publicly funded institution serving the city’s poorest and most marginalized communities, has endured controversy concerning the quality of its services and the pandemonium that often unfolds in tightly packed emergency rooms.
The debate over UMC reached its turning point last year when nursing home and obstetric patients died under mysterious circumstances, events prompting an investigation into Veritas, the board-appointed hospital operator. In January, UMC board of directors replaced Veritas with Mazars USA, but not before the D.C. Department of Health closed UMC’s obstetrics unit.
In April, Bowser released a proposal to replace UMC with a new hospital on St. Elizabeths campus, less than 10 minutes away, that would close the recent gap in obstetric-related services.
The District has set aside $300 million for the project that’s expected to cost between $240 to $255 million, according to recent estimates. GW will also contribute $75 million, most of which will cover hospital equipment and infrastructure.
Bowser’s letter of intent mentioned that the D.C. government and GW will develop a partnership agreement that will go before the D.C. Council at the end of this year or early next year.
City Administrator Rashad Young told reporters earlier this month that UMC would remain open until the new hospital’s 2023 launch date. He also said that the D.C. government would own the new building.
In a press statement last week, D.C. Councilman Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) pushed back against that assertion, saying that Bowser’s letter of intent didn’t specify whether the building and surrounding land would, in fact, be in the D.C. government’s name.
In reference to the partnership agreement, he suggested that discussions include representatives from the D.C. Council, Office of the Chief Financial Officer, and Office of the Attorney General.
Gray, chair of the Council Committee on Health who spearheaded the investigation into Veritas, also proposed the creation of performance standards which GW would have to maintain to keep its status as a private operator.
In his written statement, Gray also decried the number of beds, saying they fell below the amount recommended by a Los Angeles-based community hospital.
As he had reportedly done in the wake of Bowser’s announcement, Gray, like Green and some D.C. residents, also criticized the hospital’s 2023 completion date. Given recent service changes at UMC and Providence, Gray suggested opening the new hospital no later than 2021.
Regardless of its opening date, Southeast resident Ameen Beale said he doesn’t believe a new building will erase personnel’s disdain for low-income patients, many of whom visit the emergency room with drug overdoses and traumatic injuries.
Beale said he witnessed these class dynamics firsthand when pneumonia confined him to a hospital bed for six days in 2016. He said during his stay, some of the nurses, doctors and staff members, alluding to his professional attire and private insurance, enthusiastically tended to his needs and, at times, questioned why he would check into UMC and not another hospital.
The five-year construction timeline of the new health care facility, Beale said, further solidifies that divide as it leaves enough time for more development and removal of low-income Washingtonians who would benefit from those services.
“This is part of the master plan for incoming residents,” Beale, 35, said. “Middle-class residents [currently living in Ward 8] say they want a world-class facility. That’s the class divide that will happen for the foreseeable future. In terms of gentrification, they will do a lot of damage in the next five years. [D.C.] can open up a hospital before then. What were they going to do in the interim?”
None of the D.C. area hospitals ranked in the Top 20 of the U.S. News & World Report’s 29th annual compilation of the nation’s top hospitals, released earlier this month. The highest-ranking D.C. hospitals on that list included MedStar Georgetown, which was 26th for diabetes and endocrinology. MedStar Washington Hospital Center also ranked 49th in cardiology and heart surgery.
However, work remains to be done, as seen at nearby Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where patients complained of rusty tools, bacteria-infected water, and other atrocities at the facility.
Similar stories about UMC have discouraged some visits in recent years.
However, Madame T, a 27-year-old Southeast rap artist, said conversation about UMC, her place of birth, didn’t stop her from trusting staff members when her mother entered UMC’s intensive care unit earlier this month and fell into a coma. She said the doctors didn’t give up on her mother, staying by her side until she awoke three days later.
“People say they don’t want to go into that hospital, so I was worried when my mother first entered, but I left it in God’s hands,” Madame T said.
She said that her mother’s case might be out of the ordinary, given the gravity of what medical personnel face daily and the mental toll it takes.
“You see people [in the emergency room] gone off the synthetic weed and PCP, just screaming,” she said. “Most of the doctors and nurses can be rude — they got so much going on. The ICU is next to the children’s wing and the emergency room. I just want to see progress, better staffing and people who treat those like how they want to be treated.”