The board of D.C.’s only public hospital has relented in its fight to keep secret its discussion and December vote to close the hospital’s obstetrics unit.
The board of United Medical Center last week released an archived audio recording of a closed meeting at which members took that vote, which left the nation’s capital without a hospital for women to give birth or seek prenatal care east of the Anacostia River.
The D.C. Office of Open Government ruled in January that the board broke the law by excluding the public from its deliberations. However, board chairwoman LaRuby May said two weeks ago that the hospital would go to court to fight the ruling.
It was not clear whether such a legal action was possible, since the city’s Open Meetings Act does not allow for an appeal of open-government office decisions and the office had never been sued by a District agency.
The board shifted course on March 5, publishing the recording of its closed session on its website. The decision was first reported by the Washington Business Journal.
“UMC has always operated with transparency, and in that spirit, we have agreed to share the details of the Dec. 13 board meeting,” May said in a statement. “We maintain our position that there is value to having a closed session to discuss confidential matters that protect UMC’s interests, but we value transparency with the community more.”
The December meeting came at a time when the obstetrics ward had been temporarily shut down by health regulators following the death of a pregnant woman. (Her baby was born brain dead, according to relatives, and died days later at another hospital.)
The recording reveals little new information about the board’s reasons for permanently closing UMC’s nursery and delivery rooms. Board members and hospital executives said that both financial considerations — the obstetrics ward made little money, with only about 30 deliveries a month, and was a drain on hospital resources — and concern about patients’ safety led them to shutter the unit for good.
Then-hospital chief executive David Boucree said fully staffing a reopened unit would cost about $10 million per year, in addition to more than $14 million in capital costs.
Hospital officials spend several minutes on the recording fretting aloud over the blowback from their decision and debating how they should frame it for the media.
“If we’re going to have political fallout from it, we’re not going to stop that,” May said.
Boucree suggested not dwelling on the financial dimension of the decision when explaining it to reporters.
“I wouldn’t put it on the money. That has nothing to do with it,” he said, adding that even if the hospital had a “blank check,” he did not believe it would be capable of reopening the obstetrics unit because of other work it simultaneously had to do.
Board member Konrad Dawson was one of two members who voted against closing the unit, saying the board was “whittling away to almost nothing” what should be a full-service hospital for the residents of Southeast Washington.
UMC dealt with crises last summer and fall. In addition to the initial closure of the obstetrics ward by the D.C. Department of Health, a patient in the hospital’s nursing home died after he repeatedly cried out for help and was left on the floor by his nurse. The incident spawned a separate health department investigation after it was reported by The Washington Post.
In November the D.C. Council voted not to extend the contract of the consulting firm managing the facility for a fee of $300,000 per month.
The firm, run by campaign donors to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), had been awarded a no-bid contract but failed to meet many of the city’s performance standards. It had also been accused of mismanagement by current and former hospital officials.
The hospital continues to cope with financial problems and could require tens of millions in taxpayer subsidies to stay afloat this year.
A new management firm, Mazars USA, took over at the hospital last month.