IS THERE A SHORTAGE of doctors who are willing to work in the city's alcohol detoxification center at D.C. General Hospital? That's a reasonable question following a report that four volunteer doctors -- and even the District's public health commissioner -- were needed to keep the place open for business through the New Year's weekend. The answer, oddly enough, was no. While there are serious staff shortages at some city-operated clinics, finding doctors wasn't the real problem. Once again, the problem was the District's residency requirement.

You aren't going to find a whole lot of doctors willing to set aside their private practice to work for the city full-time. It's much easier to find doctors who will offer a few hours of work here and there. But such doctors can't be on the regular city payroll if they don't live in Washington; personal service contracts -- another form of city payment -- are required. That arrangement was in effect for the alcohol detoxification center. But the paychecks were 30 days late. Two of the doctors then refused to show up, and the crisis began.

As for the District government's delay, officials argue that criticism over questionable contracting procedures has obliged them to take a much closer look at everything that crosses their desks. Fine. But it shouldn't take 30 days to pay a doctor who's been giving the city badly needed help.

In the future, the city can try a few alternatives. There are, for example, respected medical programs at Georgetown, George Washington and Howard universities and a nursing program at the University of the District of Columbia. Is there much interaction with city clinics? No. Why not tap medical students -- and faculty members -- to fill the nursing and other staff shortages at city clinics?

City Health Commissioner Reed Tuckson (who doesn't think the residency requirement is a problem) is eager to develop such relationships with university medical programs. He also wants District hospitals to "adopt" city-operated clinics with staff shortages. Yet another plan would allow those hospitals to discharge patients without medical insurance to the city's care in exchange for staff help and some use of hospital facilities. Those are ideas at least worth exploring. But meanwhile the protracted payment delays to doctors who have been willing to help out at the clinics should be looked into -- and fixed.