NOW THAT was fast. It seems it was only yesterday that we read a D.C. Department of Health news release headlined "D.C. Healthcare Alliance Is Alive and Well." In fact, it was just last week -- Nov. 26 -- that the health department gave assurances that the city's new, privatized indigent health care system was just hunky-dory. Yes, noted the release, the alliance's prime contractor, Greater Southeast Community Hospital, had hit a rough patch inasmuch as its owner, Arizona-based Doctors Community HealthCare Corp., had been forced to file for reorganization in bankruptcy court six days earlier. But not to worry, we were told. Greater Southeast doesn't hold the money, and monitors were on the scene to ensure that patients were well cared for. Well, scrap that. Yesterday, Department of Health Director James A. Buford said he intends to remove Greater Southeast as leader of the alliance and will take over the heretofore privatized indigent health care system himself, for at least six months and maybe longer. But this is the District government. So, truth be told, who knows how long?

This much is certain. The father of the privatized system of care for the poor, former health department director Ivan C.A. Walks, is beside himself over his successor's decision. His consternation is understandable. After all, it was only three months ago that Mr. Walks was crowing in a letter to The Post about the success of the D.C. Healthcare Alliance, citing, among other things, the clinical and cost effectiveness of the "integrated health care model" he helped design. Alas, with Mr. Buford's restructuring, the integrated model is no more, or at least not anything close to what Mr. Walks had in mind. "This is a fundamental change in the program that cannot be supported by the recent history of the health department's management of its existing role," Mr. Walks lamented this week. He may be referring to a recent D.C. inspector general's report that blasted the health department for failing to properly oversee the D.C. Healthcare Alliance. Thousands of ineligible residents were found to be enrolled in the privatized health system because of sloppy record-keeping by the alliance and poor health department oversight. "Given that history," charged Mr. Walks, "I think it's reckless to give the health department a larger role." Good point, but not the whole story.

Could the city risk leaving Greater Southeast and its parent company, Doctors Community, in charge? According to the Dec. 2 issue of Modern Healthcare, Doctors Community, while awash in red ink, continued to pay handsome salaries and spend extravagantly on hospital executives. Paul Tuft, Doctors Community's chief executive, paid himself, reports Modern Healthcare, "$2 million in 2001, forgave himself a $733,590 loan and received an $18,000 auto allowance." The publication reports that he also employed eight members of his immediate family on what he agreed was a bloated corporate payroll of nearly 50. Mr. Tuft, whose company also reportedly spent more than $2 million last year to lease corporate jets, was unapologetic, defending his relatives as highly qualified. "They're all talented and we're lucky to have them."

Could the D.C. Department of Health be any worse?