Some on Council Now Doubt Wisdom of Hospital Deal

D.C. Council members fret that the millions they approved for the purchase of Greater Southeast Community Hospital may not be enough to keep it open.
D.C. Council members fret that the millions they approved for the purchase of Greater Southeast Community Hospital may not be enough to keep it open. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

In the days after the D.C. Council voted to use $79 million in public funds to bail out Greater Southeast Community Hospital, council members began having second thoughts about the deal and about the city leaders they trusted to negotiate the details.

For more than two weeks, some city officials had information explaining that the city's plan to help complete a private purchase of the hospital could expose the city to greater financial risk. But council members did not receive the information until hours before they voted to approve the deal.

The financial risks were outlined in a confidential letter that the city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, sent to Peter Nickles, the mayor's general counsel, on Oct. 5. Meanwhile, the agreement was thrashed out in closed-door meetings attended by Nickles and representatives for the buyer, Specialty Hospitals of America. Even the mayor did not see Gandhi's letter, although his spokeswoman said he was briefed on its contents.

Some council members say that they were not given adequate time to evaluate Gandhi's concerns, contained in a fiscal impact statement slipped under their doors before the vote, and that the council should have been more aggressive in exploring alternatives. Now the members worry that financial questions about Specialty could mean that the $79 million might not be adequate to keep Greater Southeast open.

"We're all keeping our fingers crossed. We're not entirely sure that it's going to work," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), echoing the sentiments of a majority of council members.

"Somebody owes me an explanation on this one," said the council's chairman, Vincent C. Gray (D).

City officials agree on one point: They sought to prevent the closure of Greater Southeast, the city's only hospital east of the Anacostia River. Medical care in that area has been a major concern for years, and a fierce political debate followed the decision in 2001 by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to close the city's only public hospital, D.C. General.

Some council members said they had relied on Gray, David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council's health committee, and Nickles to handle complicated negotiations and get the best deal. Instead, they said, the officials were hindered by poor communication and disagreements, including one with Gandhi.

Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said he is most upset that every council member was not privy to talks that shaped the agreement, which Catania initially orchestrated.

"It's one thing to have health committee meetings. It's another to have private meetings about the fate of the hospital, and we weren't included," Thomas said. "I'm trying to give David some respect, but at the same time, we're going to be held accountable."

Some council members said they gave the benefit of the doubt to Catania, appointed in 2004 by the council's chairman, Linda W. Cropp (D), to lead the health committee, which she created.

Since then, Catania's in-your-face approach to oversight has prompted a running joke in the city government that he is the city's health director.

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