A panel of D.C. lawmakers opted Friday to hold off on a formal investigation into the management of United Medical Center, the District-owned hospital that has come under growing scrutiny amid financial problems and questionable patient deaths.
D.C. Council Health Committee Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) had sought to open a more aggressive phase in the council's oversight of the public hospital, which serves some of the poorest and sickest people in the nation's capital.
A resolution Gray circulated Friday afternoon would have authorized subpoenas for witnesses and documents related to the operation of the hospital, which the consulting firm Veritas of Washington has run since 2016 under a $300,000-per-month contract with the District government. The company's executive chairman, Corbett Price, was a political donor to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
At the last minute, Gray decided to table the resolution after it became clear he couldn't muster enough votes on his five-member committee. Calling the meeting to order two hours late after an ultimately fruitless bout of last-minute negotiations with other council members, Gray said the committee would for the time being rely on the cooperation of UMC's leadership.
Gray said after the hearing that he would move quickly to schedule further public hearings on the hospital but that he would have preferred the power to legally compel the production of documents and witness testimony. "Subpoena power is very persuasive to people," he said.
On Tuesday, UMC Board Chairwoman LaRuby May skipped a Health Committee hearing at which Gray had requested she testify on the board's decision to close the UMC obstetrics ward, a decision that left women east of the Anacostia River without a place to give birth or seek prenatal care.
On Thursday, May sent Gray a letter apologizing for a "misunderstanding" of her willingness to testify, adding that her absence resulted from a scheduling conflict. She said she would be willing to appear before the committee later this month.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said May should be given the benefit of the doubt — and a chance to answer the committee's questions — before subpoenas are issued. However, Cheh said that if the committee continues to run into roadblocks, she would support subpoena power.
"We're not getting the kind of cooperation we should get," Cheh said. "We expect it, and we will get it or we will proceed by way of subpoenas."
For decades, under both private and public management, UMC has suffered from financial problems and a reputation for poor medical care. Those issues came to a head last year. In June, a pregnant woman died after inappropriate delays to her care at the hospital's emergency room, and in August a resident of the hospital's nursing home died after crying out for help but being left on the floor by his nurse for an extended period.
In November, citing concerns about patient care and allegations of mismanagement against Veritas officials, the D.C. Council voted not to extend the company's contract. Then, in December, the hospital announced that it was in a financial emergency and would need a $17 million subsidy from the city to continue operating.
Next week, the hospital board is expected to pick a management company to replace Veritas. The board is an independent body, although under District law six of its 11 voting members are appointed by the mayor, who also picks the chairman.
Gray wants to investigate multiple issues, including the circumstances under which Veritas was awarded a no-bid contract by the hospital board in 2016 and communications between Veritas officials and the mayor's office. He said Friday that the committee would reassess in March whether UMC's leadership was cooperating adequately.