Buy it or close it

(Published August 25, 2003)

In a city that offers quality health care at seven accredited full-service hospitals, why would anyone in their right mind seek medical care at a hospital that has just lost its accreditation?

Yet, that is exactly what D.C. government officials and federal Medicaid/Medicare administrators are asking this city’s poor and uninsured residents to do: help prop up a failing, privately owned institution that has a poor history of attracting business from the community and little prospect of getting itself out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy under its current ownership.

Greater Southeast Community Hospital’s status as the only hospital located east of the Anacostia River is hardly reason enough for taxpayers to continue pumping money into an institution that cannot meet industry standards for quality. The hospital lost its bid for re-accreditation by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations on Aug. 18, following six months of trying to reverse preliminary denial.

A bad hospital is a bad hospital – and most patients who are able to choose have for some time voted with their feet by going elsewhere for medical care. That reputation is why Greater Southeast, which can barely fill a quarter of its 450 inpatient beds, was in bankruptcy under its previous ownership as well.

Now the D.C. government has given the hospital what can only be described as a "squishy" 60-day deadline to correct its major deficiencies or face closure. Councilwoman Sandy Allen, whose committee oversees the city’s provision of health care, has said publicly that Greater Southeast – which also is the largest employer in her ward – will not immediately be closed if the hospital fails to comply with a recent consent decree it signed with the city.

No one should be surprised that the mayor and the council refuse to get tough with Greater Southeast’s management, which has made some savvy political moves since purchasing the hospital out of its previous bankruptcy (with $8 million of taxpayer help, courtesy of the now-dormant financial control board). The hospital is represented by attorney John Ray, a former D.C. councilman, and lobbyist Kerry Pearson, a well-known Democratic Party fundraiser. Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ re-election campaign also reaped nearly $100,000 in contributions from individuals associated with Greater Southeast and its Arizona-based parent company shortly after the hospital was awarded stewardship of the D.C. Healthcare Alliance, a network of private health care providers for the needy that was created concurrently with the closure of publicly owned D.C. General Hospital.

The District needs a full-service hospital east of the river, but that hospital needs to inspire confidence that its quality of care is worthy of D.C. residents deciding to place their lives in its hands. Greater Southeast Community Hospital’s current status does not offer that level of comfort.

City officials should be working feverishly to broker a deal for entirely new and financially secure ownership at Greater Southeast, not a cobbled-together effort to simply preserve jobs and political face at a less-than-quality institution. A potential public takeover of Greater Southeast should be high on the list of options. Taxpayers are paying mightily now to support Greater Southeast’s substandard care, with no control over where their money is going.

There is no getting around the fact that fixing the city’s health care crisis will cost money. Taxpayers should be getting high quality for their investment, and hospital patients east of the river deserve nothing less.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator