Council Backs Hospital Purchase

D.C. Council members Muriel Bowser, left, and David Catania speak with Dr. Cyril Allen, CEO of Greater Southeast Community Hospital, on Sept. 21.
D.C. Council members Muriel Bowser, left, and David Catania speak with Dr. Cyril Allen, CEO of Greater Southeast Community Hospital, on Sept. 21. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The D.C. Council voted unanimously yesterday to approve spending $79 million in public funds to help a New England-based company buy Greater Southeast Community Hospital, a commitment that council members said would rescue the only hospital east of the Anacostia River.

The emergency vote came after a tentative purchase agreement thatwas struck last month between Specialty Hospitals of America and city officials. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and representatives of Specialty agreed on the $79 million, a combination of loans and grants to help with the purchase, buy equipment and improve infrastructure.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council's health committee and a leader in pulling the deal together, said it was time to "begin a new chapter in the history of this hospital."

Catania's colleagues applauded him for orchestrating the agreement, but some council members said they also regretted that health care is so dire in Southeast that there was little room to negotiate. Specialty had sought a city commitment of $87 million.

Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who had threatened to oppose the deal two weeks ago, said, "Just because we have a gun to our heads does not mean we should knowingly pull the trigger." He said council members "still have the responsibility to ask tough questions."

Under the agreement, Specialty, which already has taken over some hospital operations, will acquire the hospital from Envision Hospital Corp. \

The city would give Specialty $20 million for working capital, to be paid back over 10 years. In addition, the District would spend $29 million in acquisition costs, including payments that Greater Southeast owes to doctors and vendors, and $30 million to buy equipment.

Negotiations on details of the agreement will continue, but Catania said Specialty appeared to be the city's last hope to maintain a hospital east of the river.

"This is an imperfect market, and they [Specialty] have something we want," he said. "I personally went to every hospital in this city and begged . . . and they said, 'Not us.' "

During the eight years since Envision took over, it struggled to keep the 494-bed medical facility afloat. The hospital has had seven chief executives and experienced severe cuts in services. Doctors quit. Nurses walked off the job after failing to get paid, and the emergency room had to close one weekend in May. Patients lost confidence in the hospital, which has managed to fill only 110 to 120 beds most nights.

Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who lives in Hillcrest in Ward 7, said his young son recently had a high fever and his wife refused to take him to Greater Southeast. "It's not right," he said. "Something's wrong here. . . . There are eight elevators. Only two of them work."

He told Barry, "You say a gun. It's a cannonball."

Despite the problems, many residents said the hospital fills a critical need. In 2001, the city closed D.C. General Hospital, which served needy residents.

In other business, the council voted, 12 to 1, to confirm Victor A. Reinoso as deputy mayor for education.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) delayed a vote on Reinoso's appointment for nearly three months after council members raised concerns about Reinoso's performance, including his role in a Fenty administration schools report that plagiarized another school district's report.

Reinoso accepted blame, but during a council hearing, he refused to say whether he wrote the report.

Gray said he spent the summer months working with Reinoso and is satisfied that he can do the job. However, Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who dissented, said that she, too, worked with Reinoso during the summer but could not forget the plagiarism. She said that students and professors are admonished for copying work and that there should be some "consequences" for Reinoso.

In more business, 11 council members introduced a bill that would prohibit the city from billing a mentally ill patient for treatment after the patient files a lawsuit against the District alleging negligent care.

The legislation is a response to Fenty's decision to give a medical bill of more than $2 million to the guardian of Frank Harris Jr., who gouged his eyes out in 2003 when he was a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Janice Motley, a guardian for Harris, has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the city for failing to properly supervise him. She received the medical bill for care the city provided for Harris from 1973 to 2005 after she filed her lawsuit.

If a jury rules in Harris's favor and he receives a windfall of money, the city expects to be repaid, according to the Attorney General's Office. If she does not win, she will not owe the city.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), the lead sponsor, said the city has refrained from pursuing such payments in the past, including one incident that had the support of Fenty when he was a council member. He said the legislation, called the "Frank Harris Jr. Offset Justice Amendment Act of 2007," was necessary since the Fenty administration has decided to collect payment.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the actions of the attorney general were "extremely distasteful and wrong."

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