The board of D.C.'s public hospital voted Wednesday to permanently close the facility's nursery and delivery rooms, leaving a broad section of the nation's capital east of the Anacostia River without a hospital where women can give birth and seek prenatal care.
The obstetrics ward at United Medical Center has been closed since Aug. 7, when regulators shut it down after uncovering what they said were serious medical errors in the treatment of pregnant women and newborns. However, elected officials, maternal-health advocates and residents of Southeast Washington had expressed hope that it would reopen.
Board Chairwoman LaRuby May said the choice stemmed from financial challenges and questions about whether the hospital could safely provide obstetrics care to patients.
"Our decision is really based on the needs of the community," May said. "Mothers had already decided that we're not the place where they want to be."
UMC delivered a relatively small number of babies — roughly several hundred a year — and most women in Wards 7 and 8 give birth at hospitals in other parts of the city. However, the hospital provided a setting where women in Southeast Washington could give birth in emergencies, and also served as a de facto clinic providing prenatal care to walk-ins.
D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council's health committee, said the board's action "sends a powerfully negative message" to the poor and predominantly African American residents of Southeast Washington.
"It says that, in terms of the allocation and equity of services, the people on the East End of the city are seen as not sufficiently worthy to have available to them one of the most important services a population can have," Gray said, adding that he hoped to re-examine the board's decision in a public hearing.
The hospital board voted on the resolution not to reopen the labor and delivery ward in a session closed to the public. May said afterward that the decision was not unanimous but that she was unable to provide the vote tally.
The board's legal justification for conducting its vote behind closed doors was unclear. While private discussions are common for matters involving contracts, personnel matters and litigation, boards usually reconvene in public for votes.
May said she had been advised by the board's lawyer that the closed session was proper but could not cite any specific statutory exemption that justified voting in private.
Traci Hughes, director of the D.C. Office of Open Government, said the District's Open Meetings Act does not allow a public body to vote on a resolution in closed session.
News of the closure comes as the District's only public hospital — and the only full-service hospital east of the Anacostia River — is weathering an extraordinary bout of organizational turmoil. The board also voted Wednesday to request a $17.1 million bailout from the D.C. government, an amount that would be the largest taxpayer subsidy for the hospital since 2010, the year it was taken over by the District.
Had the board chosen to reopen the obstetrics ward, May said, the hospital would have had to ask for an additional amount of at least $19 million.
Meanwhile, the hospital is dealing with ongoing questions about patient safety.
The D.C. Health Department is investigating an incident, reported by The Washington Post, in which a resident of the hospital's nursing home died after repeatedly crying out for help and being left on the floor by his nurse. Hospital officials did not initially report key details of that case to regulators.
Last month, the D.C. Council voted not to extend the $300,000-per-month contract for Veritas of Washington, the consulting firm that has been running UMC since 2016, citing concerns about mismanagement. The firm, whose leaders were campaign donors to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), was given a no-bid contract to run the facility after Bowser's health-care finance director recommended it to the hospital board.
After the board's decision Wednesday, a Bowser spokeswoman issued a written statement saying that the mayor hoped the board would "explore the feasibility" of reopening the obstetrics ward in the future.
Meanwhile, said spokeswoman LaToya Foster, the mayor believes that a recently announced initiative by Howard University Hospital and Unity Health Care to offer prenatal care at community clinics in Southeast D.C. is "an innovative solution that addresses the access question in a responsible and effective manner."
May said she hoped UMC would also be involved in efforts to expand prenatal care in Wards 7 and 8, though the hospital has no specific plan yet.
"I can't tell you exactly what it's going to be. I don't know what it's going to be," she said. "I can only tell you we're committed to it."