February 26, 2012

D.C. OFFICIALS have made many of the decisions about United Medical Center with their backs to the wall. To save the only hospital east of the Anacostia River, they ousted one owner, helped another and eventually took control of the troubled facility — all to the tune of tens of millions of public dollars. Now the hospital is asking for more money. That should make the city pause and clearly assess its hopes and its chances of success.

The hospital’s board is seeking an additional $15 million to stabilize the facility, formerly known as Greater Southeast Medical Center, and help finance turn-around efforts. The District already has invested $79 million. Detailing the bankruptcies and ownership changes that have marked the hospital’s history, a report commissioned by the Department of Health Care Finance invokes the metaphor of a washing machine with the hospital “stuck on the agitation cycle for a long time.” Hospital officials portray the request for $15 million as a means of stopping that turbulence.

A turnaround specialist would be sought to help refocus the hospital’s traditional mission from acute care to ambulatory and physician-centered care. “We are not just asking for money,” Bishop C. Matthews Hudson, board chairman, told The Post’s Tim Craig of efforts to devise a business plan that will make the hospital attractive to a private buyer.

Unfortunately, such promises aren’t new. Every expenditure of city money has been accompanied by a reassurance it would finally make the difference. City investment has resulted in a renovated facility, new equipment and, as the recent report detailed, the “beginning stages of improved services, clinical outcomes, customer service, and performance improvement.” But the hospital remains cash-starved, with an impoverished clientele that doesn’t begin to pay its way. We have to wonder if the $79 million might have been more profitably spent on other health services.

City officials have no attractive options. No one wants to pull the plug on quality health care for residents of Wards 7 and 8. It’s time, though, to get better answers. Is it realistic to expect a qualified buyer? Won’t a continuing subsidy be needed as long as the hospital functions? If the region needs this hospital, why not plan accordingly instead of falling back on emergency infusions?

Too often discussion about the hospital has been marked by gamesmanship — witness the recent shouting match between council members David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). We hope that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is serious when he promises a careful and dispassionate review of the hospital’s request.

For more on this topic from The Post:

D.C. Wire: United Medical Center requests $15 million.