The promise of a new state-of-the-art hospital hasn’t quelled Ward 7 and 8 residents’ concerns about accessing proximate maternal and emergency health care in the here and now. That’s why discussions have revolved around whether and how best to support an under-resourced, financially-bleeding United Medical Center (UMC) during the two-year wait.
D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) started recent conversations seeking input on a quality health care system that would complement the new hospital while providing entry points to affordable, holistic care for residents.
“There’s no denying that east-end residents need to have quality health care services. We don’t need to wait until a new hospital is open to get to that point,” Gray told community members, health professionals and advocates on Tuesday night during a forum at the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization (MHCDO) headquarters.
The event featured Thomas Duncan, Linda Elam, Karen Dale and Marie Morilus-Black, all heads of managed care organizations that Gray says serve a total of more than 100,000 low-income District residents. Before fielding questions from audience members, Gray spoke about plans in the works, at one point giving kudos to Black, of MBI Health Services LLC, for opening the east-of-the-river community’s first-ever urgent care clinic.
“MBI is slated for an April 2020 opening on Nannie Helen Burroughs and Division avenues,” Gray. “We have a new medical building coming to Skyland. In addition, Sibley is operating the Ward Infinity program to assess the health needs of those who live in Wards 7 and 8. [We need] some money in the budget to help us continue running the Infinity program. The building that I mentioned on the grounds of Skyland would include a host of specialty services like radiology.”
Tuesday night’s forum briefly shifted to another public health topic as Gray exchanged words with protesters from Black Youth Project 100, who chanted their support of sex work decriminalization and admonished the Ward 7 council member for missing a recent 14-hour hearing about legislation that could make it possible.
Gray, along with several elders in the space, dismissed the activists who quietly sat among audience members for several minutes before interrupting the proceedings in four waves.
Minutes later, Gray suggested that the current catastrophe afflicting Wards 7 and 8 could’ve been avoided had D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) honored his allocation of funds in the 2015 budget to replace UMC with a new hospital. The accompanying array of health care centers, in tandem with legislation to expand healthy food choices and discourage vape smoking, became part of the council member’s multifaceted response to a public health crisis unfolding east of the Anacostia.
The District leads the pack in maternal deaths and residents of Wards 7 and 8 disproportionately suffer from a range of chronic ailments, most of which stem from lack of healthy food sources and health care options. A Southeast woman who recently gave birth to a stillborn baby blamed an ambulance delay and the lack of a nearby maternity ward.
The closure of UMC’s obstetrics center in 2017 and that of Northeast’s Providence Hospital in April have further destabilized what residents had already characterized as a broken health care system. In the months after Providence’s closure, Northwest’s Washington Hospital Center and the George Washington University Hospital, the former of restricted use of two Medicaid types in 2016, experienced more strain from the influx of patients coming from Wards 7 and 8.
In Southeast, staff at UMC said they haven’t been able to keep up with the patients that come into the facility daily. Tuesday’s forum took place nearly a month after the D.C. Council Committee on Health, on which Gray serves as chair, hosted a public oversight hearing about the quality of patient care at UMC.
Those who spoke before the Committee on Health on Oct. 25 mulled over how to best split a $15 million annual operating subsidy — a far cry from the $40 million UMC requested — between an emergency department, behavioral health services, and in-patient, out-patient and support services.
All the while, uncertainty hovers over the status of UMC’s replacement. Gray said the hospital operator, Universal Health Services, will most likely testify before the D.C. Council within the next month. Underreported behind-the-scenes action between Universal Health Services and the mayor’s office has caused some anxiety, on the council and in the streets, about whether the hospital would be completed on time and what happens if the construction goes beyond 2022.
On Tuesday, Gray assured the dozens of community members present that UMC wouldn’t close until the end of the new hospital’s construction.
Later, during a Q&A session, the three other panelists, Elam, Dale, and Duncan — each of whom sit at the helm of Amerigroup, Amerihealth Caritas, and Trusted Health Plan, respectively — spoke about the potential for collaborations with community partners — the D.C. Department of Employment Services, for example — to get clients their basic needs, the lack of which prevents them from overcoming health challenges.
Regardless of the outcome of the new hospital or health care system, Marshall Heights resident Carlene Thompson said District officials need to provide loan reimbursements and other economic incentives for doctors to practice medicine in the District for at least the next three fiscal years.
“If the council member does for doctors what they do for teachers in impoverished communities, then you’ll have a lot of doctors from all over the United States,” said Thompson, an MHCDO board member. “I’m the type of person who has to see it to believe it because you know people get removed. I heard no one said it was pinned down.”