D.C. Mayor Gray pulls bill that would've let him tap United Medical Center chair

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 7:00 PM

Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Tuesday withdrew emergency legislation that would have allowed him to choose the chairman and expand the board that oversees United Medical Center, a Southeast Washington hospital that he wants to privatize.

The hospital, which the D.C. government seized in July in foreclosure, is viewed by some officials as a drain on the city's dwindling resources, an opinion reiterated by representatives of bond rating agencies whom Gray met with Thursday in New York.

On Friday, Gray (D) proposed expanding the hospital's 11-member board to 16 to circumvent those on it who don't share his desire to move quickly to find a buyer for the hospital (formerly known as Greater Southeast Community Hospital). Gray actively sought the resignations of four members appointed by predecessor Adrian M. Fenty (D) but was met with pushback.

By Monday night, however, board chairman Leon Swain Jr. had tendered his resignation and D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council's Committee on Health, had approached D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) about striking a compromise. More board members were expected to follow Swain's lead, with Stephen T. Baron, a Fenty holdover serving as interim director of the Department of Mental Health, resigning Tuesday.

"In exchange for withdrawing the legislation, I would move the mayoral nominees immediately and let the mayor choose the chairman," Catania said in an interview.

"The mayor runs the D.C. government agencies, and he has the right to put whoever he wants in charge," said Swain, who also is chairman of the city's Taxicab Commission.

Gray's proposal to stack the hospital board in his favor marked his first visible effort to flex his power as mayor. The compromise also reinforced Gray's reputation as a leader willing to bend and Brown's newfound position as mediator.

"Kwame played that role very nicely," Catania said. "I had a point of view that I felt strongly about. The mayor had a point of view that he felt strongly about. Reasonable people can reason together."

Brown said concessions were struck after a series of conversations among the three Monday and Tuesday. "In the past, we may have been going on and on with this situation," Brown said, referring to when Fenty was mayor and Gray was council chairman. "A lot of times, it's just about communicating."

During Fenty's tenure, there were standoffs between the legislative and executive branches over everything from baseball tickets to the budget. "The residents are tired of bickering and fighting," Brown said. "They want solutions."

But a solution to United Medical Center problem may be more than a year away.

Gray said he wants to hire an independent consultant to review the hospital's finances, assemble a request for proposals and find a buyer. "To do this responsibly could take six to 12 months, maybe closer to 12," Gray said.

Entrepreneur George Chopivsky has expressed interest in purchasing the hospital, but Gray said that offer is not on the table at this time. In a previous interview, Gray also dismissed conflict-of-interest concerns about his girlfriend, lobbyist Linda Greene, who has lobbied for Chopivsky in the past.

Although Gray and Catania have agreed on the board, they still differ about the timing of privatizing the hospital.

In 2007, Catania pushed his colleagues to approve $79 million in assistance to New England-based Specialty Hospitals of America to buy the hospital from then-owner Envision Hospital of Arizona despite warnings that Specialty was not fiscally strong enough to operate United. But the hospital risked closing without the government intervention.

By summer, District officials were unimpressed with Specialty's management, and a court fight ensued, leading to the city's takeover in July.

Catania said Tuesday that the city still has an obligation to residents, particularly those in wards 7 and 8. United is the only hospital east of the Anacostia River. Catania said he thinks two years is a more realistic timeframe to shore up the hospital's finances to make it attractive to a "reputable buyer."

"Thank you, Wall Street. I appreciate your concern, but we're going to do what's best for our residents," Catania said.

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