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D.C. Council refuses to raise funding cap for United Medical Center, triggering oversight board

United Medical Center in Southeast Washington.
United Medical Center in Southeast Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council on Tuesday refused to increase the cap on subsidies for the troubled United Medical Center, a decision that will probably trigger a fiscal management control board that city officials say would be disastrous for the hospital in Southeast Washington.

The hospital has seen such a steep decline in patient counts during the coronavirus pandemic that it now has 10 times more staff than the average daily number of patients. It had asked to raise its cap on city funding from $15 million to $40 million this fiscal year, a change that would have allowed the hospital to receive additional funding without ceding spending decisions to an outside control board.

During a lengthy debate, some lawmakers referred to the hospital’s poor patient outcomes and raised the concern that limiting spending would leave vulnerable patients even worse off.

But others insisted that the council — which expanded the hospital’s subsidy in 2019 — this time should stick to the legal cap that was previously chosen to trigger outside fiscal management.

“We put the threat of the control board in,” Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said. “Why don’t we want this control board at this point?”

Wayne Turnage, the deputy mayor for health and human services who serves on the hospital’s board, said the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) will probably still find funding for the hospital to pay its immediate expenses, including this month’s payroll.

But the control board will probably take over, and it would have the power to make drastic cuts at the hospital, which is scheduled to close in 2023 and be replaced by a new facility nearby.

“If the control board comes in, the hospital will be viciously pruned. There’s no question about that,” Turnage told lawmakers, predicting that the board would probably shut down branches of the hospital that serve few patients.

“The control board will come in and fix it for you, but it will be a fix that probably none of you have the stomach for,” Turnage said. “I’ve seen hospital operators come in and basically take hospitals down to the studs. And it’s not pretty.”

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Bowser had pushed the council to approve the emergency measure, saying the city needs to have an operating hospital in Ward 8 “to ensure the delivery of health-care services continues uninterrupted for our residents living east of the river.”

Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) made a similar argument. But others expressed concerns about the hospital’s poor quality of care and repeated financial shortfalls.

“We’re talking about residents and we’re talking about their health care, but we’re also talking about our responsibility as the custodians of this government,” said Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large).

As emergency legislation, the bill needed nine votes to pass. It failed 7 to 6.

Also on Tuesday, Robert White withdrew a bill that would have reserved some new medical marijuana business licenses for people who were previously incarcerated for drug-related offenses.

The bill was the latest attempt to address equity in the expanding industry. Bowser is considering whether to sign legislation passed last month that allows people with felony convictions to work at medical dispensaries, cultivation centers or testing labs. The council unanimously approved that legislation, which also makes it legal for people with felony convictions to own and operate medical cannabis businesses if they haven’t been convicted of certain crimes within three years of filing an application.

White’s bill would have instructed the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, which oversees the medical cannabis program, to reserve at least one dispensary license, one cultivation center license and one testing lab license for businesses that are majority-owned by people who were previously incarcerated for drug crimes whenever new licenses are next approved.

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At a breakfast before the legislative meeting, several council members expressed concerns that the measure was too narrow and could create undue competition between social equity applicants and formerly incarcerated residents. Bowser said that she thinks the council has done enough to promote equity in ownership of cannabis businesses.

“We’re already taking some real specific steps in the emergency bill we passed last month,” said Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). “The social equity component shouldn’t run up against the desire to be more inclusive for returning citizens.”

In a statement, White said he withdrew the legislation to work with McDuffie and “take more time and broaden equity for returning citizens in the cannabis industry, more than our emergency legislation did.”

In February, Bowser announced legislation to legalize recreational marijuana dispensaries, which until now have been blocked by Congress. That bill, which is awaiting council action, would also automatically expunge records for certain marijuana-related convictions and direct cannabis sales tax revenue toward programs to help disadvantaged residents and certain geographic wards.

Under a 2014 voter-approved law, D.C. residents may grow and possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. But they cannot legally buy it, and the city cannot tax sales, because of a provision in the federal budget that prohibits the District from using funds to regulate and tax such transactions.

Advocates have long hoped Congress would kill that budget rider, which was added by House Republicans. Removing it appears somewhat more likely now with Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.

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The council also took a preliminary vote Tuesday on changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the massive document that guides zoning and other land-use decisions. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) successfully proposed allowing high-density construction on city-owned parcels along U Street NW.

Though Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) opposed her amendment, saying tall buildings don’t belong next to residential rowhouses, Nadeau said she hopes her proposal might lead to a library and a large residential building with affordable units on a plot at 17th Street NW currently used mostly for police and fire vehicle parking.

Several council members said they plan to suggest further amendments to the plan when the council gets its last chance to edit the document at one more meeting.

Robert White, who heads the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities, postponed a vote on whether to name Monica Palacio director of the Office of Human Rights — a role she had at the agency from 2013 to 2020 before resuming her post on an acting basis in January.

He said he supported Palacio’s nomination but cited a need for “urgent improvement” at the Office of Human Rights — specifically around understaffing and a lingering backlog of cases at the agency.

However, the council rejected his emergency legislation to establish a renewable, three-year term for the Office of Human Rights director.

White said the term limit would have allowed the mayor and council to better evaluate the director’s performance. But in her letter to the council, Bowser said the term limit could open up the city to potential employment lawsuits if the director is terminated early, and she encouraged the council to strike down the measure.

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