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50 years ago, Southeast D.C. worked to build a hospital
(Published November 17, 2003)

Staff Writer

Longtime D.C. resident Cardell Shelton remembers when his then-teenage daughter volunteered as a candy striper at Greater Southeast Community Hospital. He described the hospital as a "community training ground," where young people like his daughter learned how to care for people, respect their elders and communicate while helping to serve their communityís health care needs.

Government aid, federal and local, and community involvement created Greater Southeast Community Hospital. Built specifically to provide a hospital for the people in Southeast Washington and Southern Maryland, Greater Southeastís 50-year history reflects its community roots.

What caused this community outcry for a hospital? According to Greater Southeastís records, in 1952 residents of Southeast Washington learned the only privately owned hospital in their area Ė Providence Hospital, then at Second and D streets SE Ė was moving to Northeast Washington. Concern mounted and in 1955 a group of civic-minded residents came together and decided to act. The Greater Southeast Community Hospital Foundation Inc., a nonprofit corporation, was soon established. Its purposes: raise money, acquire land and facilitate the construction and operation of a community-owned hospital.

J. Glenn Beall Sr., a Maryland congressman at the time, worked to obtain property the U.S. Army had deemed as surplus land for his constituents in southern Prince Georgeís County. Recognizing the health care needs of his constituency, he persuaded the Navy to relinquish its original claim for the land. Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare received the 20.2-acre lot, passing it on to the foundation in August 1958.

The first goal had been achieved after the help of Rep. Beall. Then-Speaker of the House John W. McCormack helped the foundation obtain many federal grants, but the estimated cost to cover construction and equipping the hospital exceeded $11 million. Government funding could cover only about half of that.

Hospital records show two large gifts to the foundation -- a low-interest, $4.7 million loan from Citizens Bank of Maryland and $650,000 from the Prince Georgeís County Commissioners -- that helped bridge the gap. But the community had to come together to raise the rest. Businesses and clubs in the community donated what they could and volunteers canvassed door-to-door to raise funds.

When donations stopped coming in, the foundation was still short of its goal. Thatís when local developer Morris Cafritz came to the communityís rescue. Establishing a "Founderís Wall" listing the names of people who donated $10,000 or more to the foundation, Cafritz donated $20,000 of his own money and raised about $500,000 through his program.

After 13 years, the foundation and community had raised enough money to construct the hospital. The foundation hired John A. Volpe Construction Co., owned by the governor of Massachusetts, to construct Greater Southeast and the ground-breaking ceremony took place on Sept. 29, 1963.

On June 30, 1964, the foundationís Board of Trustees voted to change the name of the hospital to "Morris Cafritz Memorial Hospital" in memory of its benefactor who had died earlier that month.

May 1965 marked the cornerstone-laying ceremony. The hospital opened on April 12, 1966, with Vincent Mastrovito of Alexandria as its the first patient.

By 1966, Anacostia, Congress Heights and southern Prince Georgeís County had changed from predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods -- contributing to initial actions to build the hospital -- to predominantly black, mostly poor neighborhoods, which would become the hospitalís new community. The migration occurred because predominantly black communities in Southwest Washington had been displaced by redevelopment, and public housing projects were built in Southeast Washington. The middle-class community migrated further into Prince Georgeís County, leaving a largely uninsured population for the hospital to serve.

"The Cafritz Hospital reached out to a large part of the community," Shelton remembered. "Lots of people worked there as cooks, housekeepers, candy stripers and so on. People could interact with one another there."

Greater Southeast Community Hospital, which Cafritz Memorial became in the 1970s, continues to be the largest employer east of the Anacostia River.

Shelton said many people, especially seniors, went to the hospital to find someone to talk to. He said the lonely and depressed needed human interaction to feel better, and the hospital provided that outlet.

But while the population initially benefited from the hospitalís admissions policies, the hospital had been losing about $32 a day on each D.C. patient without insurance; the Districtís welfare department, unlike the State of Marylandís, did not pay the full cost of a patientís care. Hospital records show a change in policy was instituted to help combat financial difficulties: refusal to treat uninsured D.C. residents who survived on public assistance.

Black leaders organized the community to protest what they believed was a discriminatory policy. Pickets and demonstrations demanded a more racially diverse Board of Trustees and more responsive actions to community needs. In 1970, a more financially stable hospital changed its policies to include Medicaid patients.

"You needed money to get good care. No money meant poor care. This has been like this for 30 years," Shelton said.

In 1972, George Caldwell took over as the hospitalís administrator and as president of the Board of Trustees. To help relieve Cafritz Memorial from its white, elitist reputation and reaffirm the hospitalís community roots, he orchestrated the hospitalís name change to Greater Southeast Community Hospital in 1974.

But the name change did not cure the hospitalís poor community relations.

"Once the hospital changed to Greater Southeast, things started changing, because [the hospital] started changing the directors and the managers and became more into the fast track of Medicaid and Medicare and the money," Shelton said. "When the human need was removed and the financial needs were served, everyone got sick -- the people and the hospital."

The hospital grew during the 1970s and 1980s. A one-story addition in 1976 made room for expanding departments and surgical facilities and a Multi-Service Senior Center opened in 1980.

Shelton said his mother and aunt took the hospitalís shuttle to the center, which provided recreational and medical services. A hospital-provided shuttle would pick up seniors in the community and take them to the center. The shuttle service and center no longer exist.

O.V. Johnson served on the hospitalís Community Advisory Board in the early 1980s. At the time, the advisory board was attempting to provide input on services it thought would be necessary for the community.

Johnson said the hospital decided to downgrade its services, but the eliminated specialized services also eliminated high-paying, insured patients from the hospitalís income.

"By the late í80s and early í90s, the violence started going up and there became a point in time when patients were moved to D.C. General [because Greater Southeast did not have the trauma services after the downgrade]," Johnson said.

Greater Southeastís financial and managerial difficulties have persisted to today, through two bankruptcies and, now, a battle for accreditation as well. If bankrupt Greater Southeast is forced to close and liquidate its assets, many D.C. residents east of the Anacostia River would find themselves at the same point the areaís residents were in 50 years ago when the community was called to action.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator