- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Health care officials and members of District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams' administration yesterday testified in a packed D.C. Council chamber during the first day of hearings on the future of D.C. General Hospital.

The public hospital faces financial and service restructuring, or could be forced to close by year's end.

Disgruntled council members expressed frustration and suspicion toward the Williams' administration and the Public Benefits Corporation's decision to downsize the hospital.

"Frankly, I am tired of this mayor and this administration trying to secretly close this hospital," said Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, who described the manner of revamping the hospital as "surreptitious and insidious."

The PBC, the quasi-independent agency in charge of running the hospital, recommended the hospital be transformed into a "community-access hospital." Dr. Ivan Walks, the director of the Department of Health, introduced for discussion a plan that would discontinue serious trauma care and expand primarily emergency service and care for 23 to 36 hours.

"The community-access model does not close the hospital," said Dr. Walks, defending the administration's proposal.

Both the PBC's and the mayor's plan include treating patients on an emergency basis, transferring more serious conditions to other city hospitals, including those serious trauma cases, those that require hospital stays and major surgery.

"The District can ill afford to lose any hospital, especially in Southeast D.C.," said Robert Malson, president of the D.C. Hospital Association.

Mr. Malson said the financial problems of the city's only public hospital are a result of underfunding, and noted that other hospitals could not handle D.C. General's caseload for the sums the city is paying.

"It is a tale of two cities … . When you talk about taking beds away [east of the Anacostia River], it will cause a few problems," said Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat and chairman of the council's Committee on Human Services.

"There is justification for paranoia, if you are low income in this city," said Mr. Chavous, who also questioned the mayor's role in PBC funding problems while Mr. Williams was the city's chief financial officer.

The PBC's financial troubles became public this summer after the city's new chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, refused to extend money to the organization, which had overspent its $44 million subsidy from the city.

"My fiduciary responsibility … demands that I do not spend any more money," Mr. Gandhi said.

The PBC board has been operating $30 million over budget each of the past two years, and this year was spending about $2.5 million a month over budget. Mr. Gandhi testified yesterday that the PBC has operated in the red for the last 10 years, totaling more than $197 million.

The city bailed out the PBC with loans, but the organization couln't pay the money back, forcing the District to write off at least $29 million last year. But, a bill passed by the U.S. House last week wouldn't allow the city to offer any new funds to the PBC.

Mr. Gandhi, members of Congress and the D.C. corporation counsel agreed that floating funds to the PBC violates the federal anti-deficiency law, which requires city agencies to operate with balanced budgets.

The council hearings are scheduled to continue today as more than 100 persons signed up to testify.

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