D.C. Council members ramped up pressure on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to halt the controversial closure of a hospital in Northeast Washington, unanimously approving legislation this week that empowers her administration to force hospitals to remain open.
The bill was written by council members Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) in response to the planned closure of Providence Hospital, a 283-bed facility in Michigan Park. It does not ensure that the hospital will remain open, since administration officials may choose not to exercise the authority the bill gives them.
In September, the nonprofit health-care system Ascension, which owns Providence, announced that it would close all services at the hospital except for a skilled nursing facility and a small primary-care operation. The announcement caused widespread concern in a city plagued by stark disparities by neighborhood in health-care access and outcomes.
Providence, in Ward 5 near the Maryland border, caters mostly to poor patients who use its emergency room. It is scheduled to close in December.
At a health committee hearing this month, D.C. Department of Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt testified that she had no authority under the city’s laws to stop Providence from closing. Gray said he did not agree with that assessment but drafted a law to clarify that city officials could order hospitals to stay open.
It is unclear whether Bowser will sign the bill. Interim deputy mayor for health and human services Wayne Turnage said in a statement Wednesday that the administration was reviewing the bill to determine what new powers it grants and was seeking a formal opinion on the matter from D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D).
“Every District resident should have access to world-class health care, regardless of background, Zip code or income,” said Turnage, who is also the director of the D.C. Department of Health Care Finance. He did not address whether the city would mandate that the hospital remain open, but he said, “We urge the hospital to consider remaining open into 2019.”
Ascension is a Catholic health system, and on Oct. 8, Bowser wrote a letter to Washington’s then-archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, asking that the archdiocese “play a leadership role during this transition” and expressing her “very strong desire that all involved in this hospital demonstrate greater accountability to those we collectively serve.” The letter did not call for any specific action. (On Friday, Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation amid the ongoing scandal over clerical sex abuse.)
Gray said in an interview that failure to prevent or at least postpone the planned closure would diminish District residents’ options for medical treatment, especially in Wards 7 and 8. There is only one hospital east of the Anacostia River — District-owned United Medical Center — and Providence served many from the same neighborhoods.
“It’s got ripple effects,” Gray said. “That’s going to take an important piece of health care — in which there are many gaps anyway — out of the picture if they close.”
UMC was ordered to shutter its obstetrics unit last year after a pregnant woman died under questionable circumstances. Providence closed its obstetrics ward in October 2017, largely as a cost-saving measure.
The Bowser administration is in talks with George Washington University Hospital to open a new Ward 8 hospital that would replace UMC. But it is not scheduled to open until 2023.
Ascension spokesman Johnny Smith did not address questions from The Washington Post on Wednesday about the council legislation but shared a statement explaining the organization’s rationale for closing Providence.
The statement said that the hospital “has been performing very poorly financially” and that Ascension was still committed to investing in health-care services in the District outside a traditional hospital setting.
“The decision to close Providence Hospital was not an easy one,” the statement said.
An earlier version of this story omitted the fact that D.C. Council Member Kenyan McDuffie (R-Ward 5) co-authored the legislation with member Vincent Gray (D- Ward 7). This story had been updated.