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Posted at 06:32 PM ET, 09/30/2011

Battle over United Medical Center quiets down

A friendly public service announcement: The District of Columbia still owns a hospital.

Things have been pretty quiet lately over at United Medical Center, the long-troubled hospital on Southern Avenue SE that the city has owned since its July 2010 default. But on Thursday, longtime adversaries clashed at the D.C. Council, with Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi testifying before David A. Catania’s health committee.

The conflict remained along predictable lines: Gandhi, long a critic of the hospital’s potential to wreck the city’s bottom line, argued in his testimony that UMC’s “financial position remains fragile” despite “certain positive signs.” He says the hospital isn’t meeting its monthly cash goals and that it still isn’t filling its 140 inpatient beds with enough patients.

Catania, meanwhile, hails the fact that the hospital stands to turn an operating profit for the fiscal year that ends today — something he touted on WAMU-FM’s Politics Hour today, embedded above — as well as the nearly 150 new jobs that have been created at the hospital.

The funny thing is, while Catania and Gandhi continue their sparring, their visions for the future of the hospital have more or less converged in recent months. Gandhi, despite his sometimes apocalyptic talk, acknowledged in his testimony that the hospital is in no immediate danger of sucking the city coffers dry. And Catania thinks it could be in saleable condition in as soon as a year.

“I think if I had it my way, [the District] would operate that hospital for one more year,” he said in an interview today. “We could pick the company that we want, with the mission, the integrity and the ability, and we negotiate with them how that takes place. . . . We have enough massive players in this region that we would get a good deal.”

In the meantime, the two still have plenty to bicker about. Gandhi resents the hospital’s Catania-friendly management, which he feels is obstructing his legal authority to manage UMC’s finances. And Catania still thinks Gandhi’s out to run the thing into the ground in order to force a needlessly quick sale.

The conflict du jour surrounds consultants hired by the hospital to improve bill collections. Gandhi earlier this year did not renew a contract with a local firm, the Chappelle Group, that was favored by Catania and hospital management, opting instead to bid out and sign a $309,000 contract with a Tennessee-based consultant, who revealed at Thursday’s hearing that about one-third of his contract was to cover his travel and lodging expenses. That revelation irked not only Catania, but also Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who has otherwise taken Gandhi’s side in hospital disputes.

By  |  06:32 PM ET, 09/30/2011

 
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