The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Public hospital board violated D.C. law with secret vote to close obstetrics unit

LaRuby May, chairwoman of the United Medical Center board, second from left, at a board meeting in September 2017.
LaRuby May, chairwoman of the United Medical Center board, second from left, at a board meeting in September 2017. (Jahi Chikwendiu)

The board of D.C.'s only public hospital violated the city's Open Meetings Act in December when it excluded the public from its discussion and vote to permanently close the hospital's nursery and delivery rooms, a top District ethics official has determined.

Traci L. Hughes, director of the D.C. Office of Open Government, said in a ruling issued Friday that the board of United Medical Center in Southeast Washington committed violations of the law, which is designed to ensure transparency of government actions.

As a result, the board must make public an audio recording of its closed-door deliberations and roll-call vote, Hughes said, as well as any documents that board members reviewed in their closed session. The board is also undergoing voluntary training on open-meeting requirements, Hughes noted in her ruling.

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The reprimand comes as UMC weathers turmoil. The hospital is in a financial tailspin and is making the transition to a new management company after the D.C. Council ended the contract of the current operator, the consulting firm Veritas of Washington, amid questions about patient safety and allegations of mismanagement.

Wala Blegay, a staff attorney at the D.C. Nurses Association, said she hopes the audio recording of the board's discussion and vote sheds some light on the rationale for not reopening the unit.

"This is a hospital that's taking public dollars, and this is a hospital that has to answer to the community," Blegay said. "We want answers."

LaRuby May, the chairwoman of the hospital board, and a hospital spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Hughes said the board failed to properly give public notice before it went behind closed doors on Dec. 13 and conducted what should have been public business in private.

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Hughes contrasted the UMC board's action with a vote by the D.C. Council to close the city's main family homeless shelter, a deliberation that she said was carried out "in complete transparency." Hughes said she was "hard-pressed to find . . . any lawful justification the Board may rely upon to enter into a closed/executive session to accomplish the closure of the Hospital OB Unit."

The Office of Open Government is overseen by the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability and is charged with ensuring that District government officials and boards conduct their business in public when required by law.

Hughes's decision came after the D.C. Open Government Coalition, The Washington Post and the Washington Business Journal filed complaints with her office.

The board's action left the nation's capital east of the Anacostia River without a hospital where women could give birth or seek prenatal care.

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After the board met privately to decide to close the obstetrics unit, May said that the decision had not been unanimous but that she could not provide the vote tally. She also could not provide legal justification for holding the vote in private but said she had been advised by the board's attorney that the session was proper.

At the time of the vote, the obstetrics ward had been temporarily closed for months because of safety problems cited by health regulators. Many community activists and maternal-health advocates had hoped it would reopen, citing the high infant mortality rate in Southeast Washington, which is double the national average.

This month, The Post reported that top hospital officials were privately moving ahead with a plan to close the obstetrics ward even before regulators acted.

UMC has been owned by the city since 2010. It is governed by an independent public board with six of its 11 voting members, as well as the chairman, appointed by the mayor.

May, a former D.C. Council member from Ward 8 and political ally of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) who lost her reelection bid in 2016, was appointed chairwoman of the hospital board by Bowser last year.