D.C. hospital contract set for vote

Council still not without questions on spending $12.7M

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A $12.7 million contract to overhaul the city’s publicly owned hospital is poised to pass the D.C. Council on Tuesday, after a four-hour hearing last week during which several council members appeared to have made up their minds and others expressed uncertainty as to why the contract is necessary in the first place.

The deal took on renewed significance in recent weeks when companies that didn’t get the contract pointed out irregularities in the award process. But the protests also revived a wider debate into whether the city should spend millions of additional dollars on a hospital that has seen progress in recent years after a decade of troubles with private ownership groups requiring vast infusions of taxpayer money.

During the hearing Wednesday, called by council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a bloc of support for the contract seemed to emerge from council members Marion Barry, Yvette M. Alexander and Anita Bonds.

At issue is the award to Chicago-based Huron Healthcare to “turn around” United Medical Center, the only hospital east of the Anacostia River. The effort was recommended in a 2011 consultant’s report that suggested downsizing the full-service, 300-plus bed hospital into an ambulatory-care center — which could make the facility more attractive to a potential buyer.

But the contract to perform the work was challenged by competitors who, among other irregularities, claimed Huron was allowed to change subcontractors midway through the process after failing to include a certified local firm in its original proposal, as is required by D.C. law.

Mr. Barry, Ward 8 Democrat in whose district the hospital sits, said he based his decision to support the Huron contract on input from the chairman of the hospital’s board, Bishop Charles Matthew Hudson Jr.

Mr. Hudson, an appointee of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, was depicted in a 2011 City Paper article as micromanaging the hospital beyond his responsibilities and creating a dysfunctional environment. Mr. Hudson countered in the report that he was providing leadership after years of mismanagement.

Ms. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, said she was “baffled” as to why the council was having a hearing at all and indicated she likely would vote to approve the award to Huron.

Ms. Bonds, at-large Democrat, defended the award but noted that minority business and procurement procedures need to be streamlined.

Contract vs. medical care

Other council members who attended the hearing seemed less committed, especially as the hearing nominally called to address issues of fairness in the contract process blurred into discussions about the fate of the city-owned hospital.

Council member David Grosso, at-large independent, began the meeting by saying he was “extremely confused” by what was happening and that he was “not inclined to get involved.”

Council member David A. Catania, who is intimately familiar with the hospital after serving as chairman of the council’s Committee on Health from 2005 until this year, said the council should not be overseeing contracts at all. In this case, the at-large independent doesn’t support the turnaround effort because he believes strongly in the recent progress the hospital has made in spite of years of financial mismanagement.

The remainder of the council members steered clear of the hearing and have declined to comment on the contract process or the hospital — which, Mr. Catania said, is the problem with the upcoming vote and the oversight role the council is playing.

Noting that many of his colleagues have either never visited the hospital or have not been there in many years, Mr. Catania reiterated his long-held belief that the real problem is that outgoing D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi disrupted the hospital’s payment collections by firing a reputable accounting firm and replacing it with an out-of-town company that botched the job.

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