A team of doctors worked around the clock during the New Year's weekend to man the District's alcohol detoxification center, which recently was forced to cut back its hours because of staffing problems, city officials said yesterday.
Dr. Reed V. Tuckson, the city's public health commissioner, said he worked at the center during the weekend and is considering a plan to hire more physicians for the 50-bed unit at D.C. General Hospital.
Of the five doctors assigned to the detoxification unit, two refused to show up last month because they had not been paid.
"The situation caught me by surprise," said Tuckson. "I didn't anticipate that physicians wouldn't be on duty for New Year's Eve. I had to alter my plans very quickly."
After a report on the shortage last week in The Washington Post, Tuckson, who began his shift at midnight on New Year's Eve, and four other doctors volunteered to work at the center.
"I covered it all night," said Tuckson, who worked through noon the next day. "It would have been absolutely inappropriate for this service to not have been offered, especially during the New Year's period, when, unfortunately, people do abuse alcohol."
About 30 persons were admitted to the center during the holiday weekend, Tuckson said. He returned to work at the facility for several hours Friday night.
The hours at the detoxification center, which had been uneven for about two months because of a shortage of doctors, became even more erratic in November, when the unit was forced to close about 25 percent of the time, according to D.C. Department of Human Services reports.
The detoxification center is barred from admitting patients if a doctor is not present to examine them. Patients have been allowed to remain at the unit under the care of nurses during periods when no doctor is there, according to John Jackson, administrator of the city's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services Administration.
Jackson said the agency did not get paychecks to the doctors on time primarily because of the agency's efforts to reorganize and tighten its contracting process.
The agency hired the doctors under personal service contracts, rather than as regular city employes, in part to avoid the city's requirement that employes live in the District, Jackson said. When department officials learned that the contracts were held up, they tried to pay the doctors using other procedures, but more delays ensued, he said.
But Tuckson said that the doctors have now been paid and that the center is operating normally. He said that the department is considering hiring three more physicians for the unit.
"We've taken care of the problem," Tuckson said. "I'm happy to report that we provided the services we were responsible for providing to the citizens of this city."
Two other city-run facilities that treat alcoholics are facing similar staffing problems. The Mary Herring Home at 700 Monroe St. NE is operating under a provisional license because of understaffing, according to a Dec. 23 memo from Curtis Dance, chief of the District's Bureau of Alcoholism Treatment Services.
Two of the five floors of the Karrick Hall, a 30-day alcohol and drug treatment program on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital, have been closed because of lack of staff, officials at the human services department said.
Tuckson said he did not have details yesterday about the situation at those centers but that he plans to be briefed about them today.