First of a two-part series
A popular fable attributed to Aesop featuring a tortoise and a hare, concludes with the adage, “slow and steady wins the race.”
Perhaps it’s this notion of being both “slow and steady” that stands in the way of replacing the beleaguered United Medical Center in Southeast with a new, modernized facility for those living in Wards 7 and 8 where sorely-needed services, specifically obstetrics provided for the welfare and enhanced lives of women and newborn infants, have virtually ceased to exist.
Considered another way, one might wonder, as does Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray, why the District successfully achieved great success in securing a location and completing an ambitious construction schedule for a less consequential new home for the Washington Nationals, yet seems to find it significantly more difficult to do the same for a medical campus, or at the least one hospital in Southeast that would undoubtedly save countless lives — or at least improve the quality of the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of Black mothers and their infant children.
“Right after voters chose me to return to the council to represent Ward 7, one of the first things I did was hold a summit in December 2016 so that I could facilitate the engagement of citizens who had been calling for much-needed improvements to the only hospital that serviced the Southeast community, the United Medical Center,” said Gray, who chairs the D.C. Council’s health committee and served as D.C. mayor from 2010 to 2014 before losing to the current mayor, Muriel Bowser, in the 2014 primary amidst allegations of a since-closed investigation into his 2010 campaign finances.
“We thought we might be able to attract about 50, maybe 75 people,” he said. “But on that Saturday morning, more than 400 citizens showed up. Still, by the time I came on the council in January 2017, it seemed apparent to me that the goal was to close the hospital.”
Gray went on to raise concerns about both the timetable now posed by the current administration along with why more dollars from $300 million once earmarked for the capitol budget cannot be accessed earlier so construction can begin so that “a new hospital with urgent care, ambulatory services and especially obstetrics can be built, filling a void that we cannot wait until 2023 to fill.”
“I just don’t see a real sense of urgency,” he said. “At one point it seemed like we’d be able to open a new hospital in 2018. And I recall that work had already been done back in 2014, when we’d established St. Elizabeths as the most logical site for a new hospital. Even that seemed to come into question before the current administration called for a study to determine an appropriate site,” he said.
“My concern in all of this is that a growing number of people don’t see a need to get out and advocate for a more aggressive approach, so we can get this hospital built. This hospital would not serve as the answer to a health care system but it would certainly serve as a catalyst for one. And the people in Southeast deserve better.”
Bowser agrees that there is a sense of urgency within her Administration both as it relates to the construction and completion of a new hospital for the residents of Wards 7 and 8 but says it’s important to understand that the process must adhere to specific parameters and take into account several concerns.
“Because of the significant health disparities in Wards 7 and 8, the lack of specialty care in these wards, and the absence of a health care system – anchored by modern, appropriately sized acute care hospital, I included sufficient funding in my six-year plan to build a new hospital with a private partner by FY2023; we’ve provided $300 million in the six-year plan — $120 million of which is now allocated two years earlier than it otherwise would have been available.”
“As for the site selection, other than to indicate by executive fiat that the new hospital should be built at St. Elizabeths, no research had been conducted to determine whether the choice of St. Elizabeths was feasible, partly because no decision had been made on the size of the hospital or the supporting facilities. Accordingly, a study was needed to precisely model whether and how the site could support a specific size hospital with other ancillary facilities and if health care demand would warrant such a facility.”
“As a part of that research, it would have been imprudent not to examine other parcels as possible site locations as well. Finally, the cost of this site work was not even two-tenths of 1 percent of the total project cost. To go forward without such a valuable but inexpensive study, would have amounted to malfeasance.”
Unlike previous efforts that were focused on finding a management solution for the existing community hospital, Bowser says she’s seeking to build a new hospital with a financially strong, high-quality partner that has established expertise in delivering medical services – one that would increase the probability that the new hospital will be viable and sustainable, while best positioning the city to address its health disparities.
Further she asserts, “there has been no delay.”
As for Ward 8 Council member Trayon White, we reached out to him to either speak with us or to respond to written questions, but he was unavailable for comment.
We continue this story next week as we explore current debates over the size and services of the proposed new hospital, the disputed timeline for its completion and how political leaders and others view the challenges that remain.