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SIMMONS: Political shenanigans of health care are sickening

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If you support health care reform, stay away from the D.C. model.

Serious problems can be traced to at least 2002, the year that managed-care businesses started reaping millions upon millions of dollars in city contracts because of failed oversight, according to a 2004 report in The Washington Times.

The common denominator — David A. Catania, at-large independent — has got to go as chairman of the council's Committee on Health.

Fresh eyes and a new vision are sorely needed.

Claiming to be a staunch advocate of ensuring that medical services and products are accessible and affordable to the underserved, uninsured and illegal immigrants, Mr. Catania introduced his blueprint, the Universal Healthcare Access Act, in 2005 when he took the reins of the Health Committee.

His other political handiwork includes making sure that the city stocked up on supersized condoms, supporting same-sex marriage and urging the distribution of medical marijuana.

His oversight also led to this: The D.C. Department of Health reported in June an uptick in heterosexual residents with HIV.

In 2008, about 5.2 percent of heterosexual men tested positive with the virus that causes AIDS in areas with high infection rates and poverty, according to a 750-participant survey funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, a 482-participant survey showed the rate had risen to 8 percent. Among straight women, the rate rose from 6.3 percent in 2008 to 12.1 percent two years later, the survey indicated.

Also questionable are Mr. Catania's motives regarding D.C. Healthcare Systems and closely tied businesses — D.C. Chartered Health Plan, Chartered Family Health Center and RapidTrans — all of which won hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts for campaign financier Jeffrey Thompson, who now is under a federal microscope.

As The Times' Jim McElhatton reported in March, Mr. Catania received a $1,000 check from Mr. Thompson's D.C. Healthcare Systems on March 27, 2006, and another $1,000 check that same day from RapidTrans.

Mr. Thompson and his companies' largesse showed patterns of campaign giving that apparently ran afoul of D.C. campaign finance law by "combining to give twice and sometimes three times the maximum donation to city politicians in a single day, records show," Mr. McElhatton wrote.

Mr. Catania, who received contributions along with virtually every other sitting politician in the District, did not acknowledge even the appearance of conflict.

"They were fully vetted by [D.C.] campaign finance [officials]," said Catania spokesman Brendan Williams-Kief. "Any contributions by Jeff Thompson or related companies in the past have had no impact on council member Catania's willingness to provide heavy and strong oversight."

So much for oversight.

In 2004, the year before Mr. Catania became the Health Committee chairman, The Times reported that Chartered had been given an extra $2 million in 2002 to operate a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week health clinic. The Thompson firm got the money, but taxpayers never got their clinic.

In addition, an auditor blew Chartered's cover with news that the health care firm had spent more than $12 million on other companies Mr. Thompson owned and charged the city double the highest rates paid to other clinics, and that Mr. Thompson had paid himself nearly $400,000 for management and consulting fees.

And get this: A transit company not owned by Mr. Thompson was charging patients only $1.70 for transportation, but Mr. Thompson's transit company was charging Chartered patients more than three times that amount, $5.35.

To his credit, Mr. Catania requested that audit. He was also critical of a $7.5 million settlement the Gray administration agreed to pay last year to Mr. Thompson's company in connection with a billing dispute over dental reimbursement rates. Mr. Thompson has stepped down, and Mr. Catania supports government takeover of Chartered.

See, when federal investigators began probing campaign finance irregularities, they raided Mr. Thompson's home and offices. While we have yet to see the depth or breadth of that probe, suffice it to say that his managed care empire began crumbling into taxpayers' laps way back with The Times' initial stories. D.C. taxpayers are now left holding a near-empty bag.

The government lifeline tossed to Chartered means taxpayers likely will be bilked again.

Then there's Mr. Catania's plan to keep sick and indigent folks who live east of the Anacostia River out of sight.

The short story is that the city's public hospital, D.C. General, closed in 2001, and Mr. Catania became one of the leading voices for a private company to take over United Medical Center, the only full-service hospital east of the Anacostia River.

It has financial problems, too.

So much for oversight.

Mr. Catania seemingly has tried to make a concession, saying at a hearing this year that Chartered and United Medical have "neither managed care nor cost."

The District needs a new vision on health care — one that isn't in the hands of Mr. Catania and that neither mimics Romneycare nor Obamacare.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

NOTE: An earlier version of this column did not indicate that HIV figures cited in a survey funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were drawn from areas with high infection rates and poverty.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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