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Southeast D.C. hospital could come with a catch: A new project in Foggy Bottom

United Medical Center, the District’s public hospital, is on track to be replaced with a new hospital serving Wards 7 and 8.
United Medical Center, the District’s public hospital, is on track to be replaced with a new hospital serving Wards 7 and 8. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Few dispute that the District needs a new hospital east of the Anacostia River. But the deal to build that hospital and have George Washington University Hospital run it has attracted critics — including George Washington University.

City officials announced in August that they had struck a preliminary agreement with George Washington University Hospital to run a hospital that would be built in Ward 8. The news was welcomed by politicians and activists who have pushed for the closure of United Medical Center, the public hospital in Southeast Washington that for decades has been plagued by mismanagement and poor quality of care.

Since then, however, city and hospital officials have disclosed a plan that goes well beyond the 150-bed hospital envisioned on the campus of St. Elizabeths, a 19th-century psychiatric facility that now houses a small hospital for the mentally ill and has a large area of land slated for redevelopment.

As part of its agreement to operate the new facility in Ward 8, GW Hospital wants to expand its 385-bed facility in Foggy Bottom by building a new 270-bed tower on the same campus.

The D.C. Council is scheduled to vote next week on legislation that would exempt that new medical tower, along with the proposed hospital, from the review process ordinarily required of new medical facilities. The bill’s backers say it is needed to ensure that long-overdue improvements to health care in Southeast Washington aren’t delayed.

But opponents — ranging from labor unions to neighborhood activists to George Washington University — are speaking out against the plan.

Mark Diaz, George Washington University’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, wrote in a letter to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission this week that the university is “not supportive” of the tower’s construction on its Foggy Bottom campus.

Although the university is a minority partner in the hospital that bears its name, it owns the land where the tower would be built, and its opposition could greatly complicate efforts to advance the project. The university’s letter of opposition was first reported by Washington City Paper.

Howard University is also opposed, for different reasons. Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick said that competition from an expanded GW Hospital could eventually force his university’s hospital to shut down.

The new Foggy Bottom tower would house patients receiving often lucrative specialty services, including those referred from the new hospital and elsewhere. Frederick said the city would fall short in bringing better health care east of the Anacostia if such services are not provided on the site of the new hospital.

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“We really are not solving the problem of bringing complicated services to where these people are,” Frederick said. “We still are sending the message that they need to come over to this side of the city to get these advanced services.”

William Kennedy Smith, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2, said the proposal to fast-track such a large expansion at GW Hospital is alarming the hospital’s neighbors, who have long complained that it contributes to parking shortages and traffic congestion around its site on Washington Circle NW.

Some labor unions have also lined up against the legislation. Patricia Lippold of 1199 SEIU, which represents service workers at both GW Hospital and UMC, said safeguards are not in place to ensure that UMC employees will be rehired at the new hospital.

Lippold said Universal Health Services — a Pennsylvania-based company that through a subsidiary owns a majority interest in GW Hospital — has often been at odds with SEIU at other medical facilities, and that the District’s ostensibly pro-labor elected officials should be scrutinizing the deal more closely.

“This whole process has lacked a lot of transparency,” she said.

Kimberly Russo, GW Hospital’s chief executive, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who chairs the health committee and has championed the effort to build a hospital in Southeast, said waving the review process for the new medical facilities was aimed at providing health care that is urgently needed east of the river.

Despite having the District’s highest infant mortality rates, he noted, residents of Wards 7 and 8 currently have no hospital at which they can give birth. City regulators closed UMC’s nursery and delivery rooms in August 2017 following the deaths of a pregnant woman and her newborn under questionable circumstances.

Gray said he hopes the new hospital can be up and running by the end of 2021.

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“We have enormously negative health conditions that need to be addressed now,” he said.

Gray and other proponents of the bill appear to have momentum. The council gave preliminary approval to the bill on Nov. 13, with only two members — Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) — voting no.

Evans said in an interview that he was concerned GW Hospital could simply choose to walk away from its partnership to run the new hospital in Southeast after several years, while keeping the more profitable tower in Foggy Bottom.

“There’s no ironclad contract that could prevent that from happening,” Evans said.

But Wayne Turnage, director of the D.C. Department of Health Care Finance and interim deputy mayor for health and human services, said the city will negotiate a “definitive agreement” to protect the public interest.

The District has set aside $300 million to build the new hospital, which GW Hospital officials would manage. Turnage said the final agreement between the District and the health care company, which is supposed to be ready for council review in December, would be crafted to ensure GW Hospital’s long-term commitment to the new facility in Southeast Washington.

Turnage said the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) supports Gray’s legislation and hopes to keep the project moving ahead quickly.

“We can’t wait,” he said. “We’ve waited long enough.”