- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Columbia Hospital for Women, which has overseen the birth of more than a quarter of a million babies since it opened in 1866 to care for the widows of veterans of the Civil War that had just ended, will close.

The private, 86-bed hospital at 25th and L Streets NW, just off Pennsylvania Avenue, has been in and out of financial trouble for the last five years. It is heavily in debt and has fallen victim to "slow pay" by insurance companies, its administrators said.

Five hundred staffers were told yesterday that they will be out of a job by week's end.

"It's been a part of my whole life, and I was hoping it was going to stay that way," said Peggy Munn, 60, a nurse at the hospital for 40 years. She gave birth to the first of her own two children at the hospital 38 years ago.

Deena Kleinerman, an independent obstetric gynecologist who has worked at the hospital for 13 years, said the remaining 30 patients in the hospital are scheduled to be relocated by tomorrow. The hospital suspended the admission of new patients at midnight yesterday.

"We're going to do our best to leave nobody by the wayside," she said.

The hospital's administration declined to comment yesterday, but D.C. Council member Sandy Allen complained that with the abrupt announcement the administrators had "disobeyed all of the rules."

"They didn't give us a 30-day notice," Mrs. Allen said, noting that a hospital is required to offer the city time so that arrangements for its patients can be made before closing. "When I talked with the chief financial officer last week, he indicated they had some problems, but he didn't indicate closure."

Annie Powell, 62, a widow and mother of seven who has worked for 27 years in the hospital cafeteria, was upset that she first heard about the impending closure on a news broadcast Monday night. "I haven't slept since," she said. "I think we should have been notified."

Michael Richardson, senior deputy director for primary care, prevention and planning with the D.C. Department of Health, said it was "regrettable and inexcusable" that the facility did not provide the proper notice but that arrangements were being made to transfer patients to other city hospitals.

Mrs. Allen, Ward 8 Democrat and chairwoman of the Human Services Committee, said the hospital's closing will leave a void in city health care, especially for low-income women. "I do believe it has to have an impact because there are a lot of specialty services they provide for women that I can't think of any other hospital that delivers," she said.

The hospital, which Mrs. Allen called an "institution of the District of Columbia," was founded shortly after the Civil War to provide care for the wives and widows of soldiers arriving in the city in search of missing relatives.

In March 1866, it opened on Thomas Circle NW under the name Columbia Hospital for Women and Lying-in Asylum. In 1870, it moved to its current location. Columbia became a private, nonprofit hospital when President Eisenhower signed legislation transferring it to a board of directors in 1953.

Administrators had hoped the hospital, which declared bankruptcy in February 1998 and emerged from court protection in early 1999, could remain independent.

In December 2000, Columbia received a $5 million federal grant, but that same month several of the hospital's doctors moved to the expanded Sibley Hospital on Loughboro Road NW, which promised assistance in paying for their malpractice insurance.

When an expected investment fell through on Friday, administrators decided the hospital couldn't be saved. Hospital workers were told there is no money for severance packages. They will be paid for unused leave and vacation.

Dr. Parveen Chowdhry said workers who had seen the hospital weather other tough times were surprised by news of the closing. "We had been pretty optimistic until last week," Dr. Chowdhry said.

Dr. Kleinerman said even through yesterday, hospital administrators were on the phone trying to work something out. "The administration has been dedicated to keeping us going," she said. "They have done an incredible job."

Yesterday, four doctors sat together in a private dining room on the fifth floor, taking one of their last meals together. A part-time doctor came in to say goodbye. Dr. Kleinerman adjusted the collar of his white doctor's coat, and bid him farewell: "Enjoy your grandkids."

Dr. Dorothy Hsiao, chief of pediatrics, has worked at the hospital for the last 12 years.

"The wonderful thing about this hospital is that it's been here for 136 years," she said. "During the Civil War, the indigent wives had nowhere else to go the other hospitals wouldn't take them. So they started this one. It's carried on with that tradition of serving women. It's a warm place."

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