Late Call

Monday, November 5, 2007

WHEN NATWAR M. Gandhi, the District's chief financial officer, talks, people generally listen. So it was unusual when the D.C. Council approved a rescue plan for Greater Southeast Community Hospital despite Mr. Gandhi's warnings. The decision reflected not only the desperate straits of the hospital but also the bungled manner in which Mr. Gandhi put forward his concerns.

On Oct. 23, hours before the council was set to vote on a plan to spend $79 million to help a New England company buy Greater Southeast, Mr. Gandhi released a withering report. It alleged that the buyer, Specialty Hospitals of America, "is not in strong financial condition" and that there's no guarantee its plan for operating the hospital will succeed. Indeed, Mr. Gandhi, while conceding funds were available, warned of risks the District would be taking and predicted the city would be called on for further handouts.

It's troubling that Mr. Gandhi chose to publicize his concerns on the very morning of a council vote that afforded little wiggle room because of an impending deadline for the hospital's sale. In some cases, the report was slipped under the doors of council members. Mr. Gandhi has argued that he made all his worries known to Peter Nickles, general counsel to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), more than two weeks earlier, in a Oct. 5 letter. But that confidential letter was not shared with the 13 council members. That oversight put them in an untenable position: either vote for the sale with all its problems or risk seeing a hospital that serves the city's most vulnerable population shut down. The council's unanimous vote was acknowledgment it had no choice but to take the gamble.

Mr. Gandhi, an official with enormous talent and credibility, has helped bring the District from fiscal disaster to today's robust health. It is inexplicable that he would wait until the last minute to share his concerns with the real decision makers -- unless he didn't want to be responsible for the politically explosive closing of a hospital. Now, if the deal indeed turns out badly, Mr. Gandhi will be able to say he said so. What he won't be able to explain is why he didn't say so when it might have mattered.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company