WE REPORTED in this space in November that the now bankrupt Arizona-based Doctors Community HealthCare Corp., which owns the ailing Greater Southeast Community Hospital in the District, continued to pay handsome salaries and spend extravagantly on its executives while it was awash in red ink. Our report, based on a story in the trade publication Modern Healthcare, was greeted with silence by the Williams administration, which had negotiated the arrangement that brought about the involvement of Doctors Community HealthCare in the city's newly privatized, $70 million-a-year indigent care system. Now that documents in the Doctors Community bankruptcy case have confirmed the heavy spending by top executives on political contributions, corporate perks and loans for themselves, perhaps city leaders will discuss the extent to which they might have benefited from the firm's extravagance. After all, while the Arizona executives were living it up, the D.C. hospital they owned was struggling with shortages of nurses, drugs and even paper clips.
The company's heavy spending on perks and the hiring of relatives was no secret, as Modern Healthcare made clear. In addition, members of the D.C. Council, most notably David A. Catania (R-At Large), had fingered Doctors Community's financial weaknesses and the problems it had with other hospitals. But lawmakers opposed to giving Greater Southeast the lead in the new indigent care system were brushed aside. That Sharon Baskerville, executive director of the D.C. Primary Care Association and a member of Greater Southeast's board of trustees, is now "extremely upset" about the reported heavy spending may be understandable. But we doubt that the city's elected leaders should be surprised. In 2001 and 2002, Doctors Community chief executive Paul Tuft and his wife, Lori, wrote 46 checks totaling $155,630, mostly to District and Maryland candidates and organizations, as the company was seeking a foothold in the Washington area. Other Doctors Community employees and family members also made contributions to area politicians -- most generously to Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Now attention is fastened on the survival of Greater Southeast, given that it is the only hospital serving the city's southeastern quadrant. To that extent, the hospital is an essential part of the District's health care system. But a hospital fighting for its life every day -- which Ms. Baskerville says is the case -- has no business serving as prime contractor in the new indigent care system. The city's health department is poised to take over that arduous task. We frankly had hoped for a better alternative, because the current health department is less than awe-inspiring. News that Greater Southeast faces the loss of its national accreditation within months only underscores that concern. Where was the health department's oversight when the hospital was falling down on training, leadership, quality control, cleanliness and building maintenance and making blood transfusion errors? Council oversight will be needed now more than ever. Likewise, candor about who among the local political elite gained from a relationship with Doctors Community HealthCare Corp., and how they dropped the ball on indigent health care, is very much in order.