D.C. must move cautiously on United Medical Center

Monday, February 14, 2011; 7:54 PM

OFFICIALS IN THE District have differing opinions about what to do with United Medical Center, the Southeast hospital the government took care control of last spring. Some think it's a threat to the city's fiscal health and want to unload it as quickly as possible. Others believe the hospital is just now beginning to come into its own and don't want to jeopardize its future by changing its status. It's difficult to know which side is right. What's clear is that part of the reason for the current dilemma is past miscalculations by politicians who acted precipitously in their eagerness to keep the hospital open at any cost. The District must be cautious in determining the future of this troubled but critical hospital.

It's been only seven months since the District foreclosed on the hospital, formerly known as Greater Southeast, when the company once seen as its savior foundered, despite having received some $80 million of city funds. The city formed a not-for-profit corporation to own and operate the hospital, and its operations since have improved. Finances have stabilized (largely due to an increase in Medicaid payments) and the hospital entered into promising collaborations with MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Howard University and Children's Hospital. Nonetheless, there are still significant money issues, and Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi has warned that the city's all-important ability to borrow money is threatened by ownership of the hospital. Those worries were bolstered by last week's visit by top city officials to Wall Street bonding agencies.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is taking Mr. Gandhi's worries to heart and has made it clear he wants the city out of the hospital business. He is seeking to gain greater control of the nonprofit hospital board. Opposing his efforts are Council member David A. Catania (I-At-Large), chairman of the health committee, who wants to keep the hospital under city control for several years to make it more attractive for sale to a top-flight reputable hospital chain.

Mr. Gray's bid to pack the board with his own appointees is a tad unsettling; there's no evidence the current board has anything but the hospital's best interests at heart; indeed, even the critical Mr. Gandhi has acknowledged the signs of improvement. Equally unsettling, though, is the grip that Mr. Catania - to whom former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) deferred many decisions - seems to hold over the hospital's direction. He has been an important and passionate champion for the hospital, but he also played a major role in the disastrous recruitment of the hospital's previous owner.

Mr. Gray is right to want to establish his leadership on this issue. He told us he plans to retain an independent health-care consultant to advise the city about the hospital's strengths and weaknesses and to help develop a strategy and timetable for the hospital's sale. It's an eminently sensible idea and one that, we hope, would include possible regional solutions to providing safety-net health care. Given their common agreement on core issues - the need to keep open the only hospital east of the Anacostia River, to not to repeat the mistakes of D.C. General Hospital and to find a reliable buyer - Mr. Gray and Mr. Catania should be working together, not at cross purposes.

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