When the milestone agreement was reached recently for Doctor's Community Healthcare Corp. to purchase Greater Southeast Hospital, a collective sigh of relief resonated through the District, especially in Ward 8. The sale meant that residents east of the Anacostia would continue to have access to desperately needed health care services.

As the chairperson of the D.C. Council's Committee on Human Services, which has legislative oversight responsibility for health care in the city, I am aware that the mix of too many beds, too few patients, too many high-end services and too few preventive services for the poor -- one-fifth of the population is covered by Medicaid and another fifth is uninsured -- challenges even the best public health care systems. In the case of Greater Southeast, policymakers had not only to stop the closure but had to take steps to establish a procedure to address possible hospital shutdowns in the future.

In May, barely a month after the financial problems of Greater Southeast became public, I introduced the Emergency Financial Assistance for Hospitals Act, which was passed unanimously by the council and signed by Mayor Anthony Williams. This act authorized the mayor to establish an emergency hospital loan and grant funds to provide assistance to hospitals in medically underserved areas to head off closure. Prior to this legislation, no mechanism existed to prevent such a catastrophe.

To ensure prompt and specific action to make funds available to the hospital, in July I introduced two other pieces of legislation that authorized the mayor to make loans of as much as $3.1 million under the provisions of the Emergency Financial Assistance for Hospitals Act. With an appropriate vehicle then available, the District extended a loan of $3.1 million to Greater Southeast Hospital. Moreover, with the loan as a catalyst, the District awarded a $3.1 million community-development block grant to the hospital and extended $2.3 million in other assistance.

In September, the council, at my request, enacted yet another piece of legislation to extend the Emergency Financial Assistance for Hospitals Act because it had not yet cleared Congress; Congress completed its approval on Oct. 5. On Oct. 12, I introduced the East of the Anacostia River Acute Care Hospital Services Emergency Amendment Act, which established provisions to prevent an interruption in services following sale of the bankrupt hospital to a new health care provider.

Swift and concerted action staved off the closure of Greater Southeast. But questions remain about the scope of its services, its approach to indigent care, its capacity for inpatient services and its relationship to the community.

Moreover, the Greater Southeast experience spotlights the fragile condition of hospitals in the city. The decline in the District's population, changes in the way health insurance covers inpatient stays and increasingly sophisticated medical technology have left the city with too many hospital beds. Consequently, as we nurse Greater Southeast back to health, the D.C. Council, the mayor and the control board must work with health care leaders to craft systemic changes so that we will not face this dilemma again.

-- Sandy Allen

represents Ward 8 on the D.C. Council and chairs the council's Committee on Human Services.