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SIMMONS: D.C. hospital contract overdue for oversight

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It has been nearly a year since Marion Barry and fellow D.C. Council member David A. Catania got into a profanity-laced sparring match over the fiscal health of United Medical Center, and here we are, approaching another Valentine's Day and troubles have escalated.

The council is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday afternoon on Contract No. DCHT-2012-C-0014 Approval Resolution of 2013, the technical name for Mayor Vincent C. Gray's proposal to spend $12,759,970 to "turnaround" the city's struggling publicly owned hospital.

The amount of money for the contract is in dispute, since it exceeded the original budget by $2.7 million, and the awarding of the contract is contentious, as some lawmakers question how Huron Consulting Services LLC of Chicago won the contract.

What is indisputable is the city's chief financial officer advised against purchasing the formerly privately owned hospital in 2010, which has had questionable mismanagement and expenditures, including federal dollars.

Moreover, council oversight has itself been negligible -- and that's a modest characterization.

Indeed, the Barry-Catania Valentine's Day blow-up in 2012 stemmed from Mr. Catania's taking offense at questions from Mr. Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, regarding the future of the hospital, which, as the Washington Business Journal reported in July 2011, was already on life-support, since "the government has reworked Medicaid formulas to spur revenue and dedicated staff nearly full time to aiding the hospital's on-site managers and governing board."

At the time, Mr. Catania, at-large independent, was chairman of the council's Committee on Health, so it is somewhat understandable why his reaction to Mr. Barry's search for the facts drew such an emotionally obscene response.

Yet facts are precisely what the council should be in search of Wednesday, when it conducts a public hearing on Mr. Gray's proposal to spend millions on a process that provides absolutely no direct health care benefits to the District's indigent residents.

The hearing is being held, in part, because of dogged reporting by one of my colleagues, Jeffrey Anderson, whose recent news stories have provided details of irregularities and government officials' responses regarding the $12.7 million contract:

City officials skirted D.C. law by awarding the contract to Huron, whose initial bid failed to include a D.C. certified minority contractor.

To cover their tracks, city officials indulged in a do-over, and Huron won again, leading critics on the losing side to raise the irregularity specter.

The hospital lost $13 million in fiscal 2012 under Mr. Catania's watchdoglike eyes.

While Mr. Catania no longer has oversight as chairman, he remains a committee member. His actions at the hearing should speak volumes.

Mr. Anderson quoted the Health Committee's new chairwoman, Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, as describing the contract as "quite pricey for what they are tasked to do." Here again, the original cost was an estimated $10 million.

At-large Democrat Vincent B. Orange was the first to call for an investigation, pointing out that D.C. law called for the bid by Huron to be "disqualified" because it originally did not include a certified minority subcontractor.

"My view is that Huron was unresponsive and should have been disqualified," he told Mr. Anderson.

Now, whether you support mandating minority firms for government contracts or not, the law is the law -- unless and until the city changes it.

Some council members, including Mr. Barry, view the firms on the losing end of the United Medical Center "turnaround" contract as chickens chattering in the churchyard.

But the hearing scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday will give the council -- and ultimately, the public -- an opportunity to prove the Gray administration is not above the law and will be held accountable.

After all, it was the council that endorsed the plan to buy the hospital in the first place.

Shut it down: It's interesting the Gray administration said it cannot afford to keep the doors open to more than a dozen schoolhouses, but can afford to keep digging into coffers for a public hospital that the overwhelming majority of residents do not utilize.

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

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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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