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‘Simply unacceptable’: D.C. Council members press hospital operator on patient’s death

United Medical Center in Southeast Washington. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council members said they were “gravely” worried about patients’ safety at the District’s only public hospital in a tense hearing Monday, as the executives who run the troubled facility pledged to improve.

The D.C. Council health committee hearing focused on the performance of Veritas of Washington, a firm led by campaign donors to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), which has managed United Medical Center for a fee of $300,000 per month since 2016. The council must decide in the coming weeks whether to renew the contract.

The hearing came on the same day The Washington Post published an account of the death of Warren Webb, a 47-year-old UMC nursing home resident with AIDS who died Aug. 25 of a heart attack after being left on the floor for at least 20 minutes by his caregivers. The Post obtained an audio recording of Webb crying out repeatedly for help in the run-up to his death.

‘I can’t breathe’: A nursing home patient called for help. His nurse left him on the floor

Veritas and UMC executives defended their handling of the incident in their testimony, saying they had undertaken “an exhaustive review” of the case and reported it to the appropriate regulatory authorities. They declined to say what specific steps they had taken to discipline the nurses involved, citing employee confidentiality.

Regulators with the D.C. Health Department said last week that the hospital did not report details of the case that would have triggered an outside investigation, and the agency began investigating Webb’s death based on The Post’s reporting.

Three eyewitnesses to the incident also told The Post that no hospital officials had interviewed them about what happened.

“I am gravely concerned about the quality of care at UMC,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), pointing to the details of Webb’s death. “What is described is shocking for a health-care facility, and simply unacceptable.”

Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), the health committee’s chairman, said he was worried that UMC’s management was not being held accountable because the hospital serves a poor and heavily Medicaid-reliant group of patients in Southeast Washington.

A man died at UMC. It took his family a week to find out.

“Veritas’s performance at UMC would never be tolerated anywhere else in the city — not for six months, not for a single second,” Gray said.

The hospital has come under increasing scrutiny since early August, when city health regulators abruptly closed its obstetrics ward without explaining why.

The Post later reported that the closure came because of dangerous medical errors that included a failure to take measures to prevent the transmission of HIV to a newborn and inadequate screening and treatment for a pregnant woman with a history of potentially fatal blood-pressure problems.

Veritas is owned by Chrystie Boucrée, wife of Corbett Price, whom Bowser appointed in 2015 to the board of the Metro transportation system. Price, his relatives and his companies made more than $35,000 in political donations to Bowser in 2014, campaign-finance records show.

At city’s only public hospital, consulting fees rise, along with trouble

At Monday’s hearing, Veritas employee and interim hospital chief executive David Boucrée — a cousin of Chrystie Boucrée — said Veritas is still struggling with “legacy problems” it inherited when it took over the hospital but is on the way to improving its financial stability and quality of care.

David Boucrée said Veritas is coming up with plans to reopen the obstetrics ward, which would ultimately have to be approved by the hospital board. He also pointed to a prospective contract for a doctors’ group associated with George Washington University to take over UMC’s emergency room.

However, he cautioned that both initiatives might require a taxpayer subsidy, a move that the mayor has said she wants to avoid.

David Boucrée recently took over the helm of UMC after Veritas announced that the prior chief executive, Luis Hernandez, would be moved to a new position at the hospital.

A search for a permanent replacement for Hernandez is underway. But council members repeatedly questioned Boucrée about whether he is qualified to run UMC in the meantime.

Boucrée, who told The Post in August that his professional background is in information technology and outsourcing, said he had not “explicitly run a hospital” before but had “managed many large and complex organizations.”

He cited his work for companies including Lockheed Martin and Inovalon, a health-care data analytics company.

“All the efforts that I have done throughout my career have been industry-agnostic,” he said.