- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

Owners of Greater Southeast Community Hospital have spent more than $675,000 in lobbying expenses and campaign contributions for city politicians since 2000, despite declaring bankruptcy amid the hospital’s worsening management crisis that now threatens its closure.

Doctors Community Healthcare Corp. of Scottsdale, Ariz., which owns Greater Southeast, paid more than $600,000 to lobby city politicians between 2000 and 2002, according to D.C. Office of Campaign Finance documents.

During that same period, D.C. politicians received more than $75,000 in campaign donations from Doctors Community, its hospitals, executives and their relatives, according to city campaign documents.

The hundreds of thousands spent to influence local political leaders contrasts sharply with the company’s decision to declare bankruptcy this year and with Greater Southeast’s recent history of regulatory failures. City leaders have advocated keeping open the District’s primary hospital for low-income residents.

City health inspectors suspended Greater Southeast’s license in January after discovering a shortage of nurses, fire-code lapses and problems in infection control and medical record keeping.

One month later, inspectors from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations gave the hospital failing grades in infection control, anesthesia care, staffing and leadership. The commission announced its decision to revoke the hospital’s accreditation on Tuesday.

Despite mounting troubles, Doctors Community has managed to play a major role in D.C. politics since it purchased Greater Southeast out of bankruptcy in 1999. The company and its two D.C. hospitals — Greater Southeast and Hadley Memorial Hospital — gave $11,000 to city politicians between 2000 and 2002.

But Doctors’ corporate executives gave much more through private donations. The executives donated at least $64,700 to D.C. political campaigns, listing themselves as private individuals on disclosure forms, according to campaign documents.

Doctors Community officials declined to comment yesterday, referring all questions to their D.C.-based attorney, John Ray, a former D.C. Council member.

“People can use their income however they want to,” Mr. Ray said of the executives’ private donations. “How they use their income is up to them, whether they use it to give to politicians or buy an automobile.”

The majority of the company’s political spending came in payments totaling more than $600,000 to D.C. lobbyist Kerry S. Pearson, between Jan. 1, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2002. Doctors Community paid Mr. Pearson to meet with city politicians on health care contract and policy matters, according to lobbying reports.

Mr. Pearson did not return messages left at his office yesterday, but Mr. Ray said funds spent by Doctors Community on lobbying did not take away from patient care at the hospital.

“Doctors and Greater Southeast obviously made a decision that it was important to the institution to spend that amount of money to get its message out to the council and executive branch,” Mr. Ray said. “I do not think that those expenditures made any difference in the operations at Greater Southeast.”

Doctors Community lobbying expenditures peaked in 2002, after the District approved an $81 million contract making Greater Southeast the primary hospital for the D.C. Healthcare Alliance, after the closure of D.C. General Hospital in April 2001.

The Healthcare Alliance is a public-private partnership that city officials created in 2001 to oversee health care for low-income residents. Greater Southeast receives as much as one-third of the funding in the city’s contract with D.C. Healthcare Alliance, D.C. officials said yesterday.

City officials have defended the Healthcare Alliance, despite Greater Southeast’s problems, and have insisted that Doctors Community’s political spending has not affected city health care policy.

“My understanding is that the contributions and lobbying were well in advance of the ongoing issues at Greater Southeast,” said City Administrator John A. Koskinen.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams received at least $40,000 in private campaign donations from Doctors Community executives and their relatives between 2000 and 2002, in addition to $6,000 in corporate donations from the company and its two D.C. hospitals.

Mr. Koskinen said city officials have received no indications that funds meant for patient care at Greater Southeast were used inappropriately.

“They provide services and we provide reimbursement,” Mr. Koskinen said. “We think that from the standpoint of services provided, in the vast majority of cases, the performance has been appropriate.”

But critics disagree.

“From the average person’s point of view, it looks very suspect that such a mountain of campaign money is coming from Scottsdale, Arizona, into D.C. local politics,” said Vanessa Dixon, a member of the D.C. Healthcare Coalition, an activist group.

Ms. Dixon also criticized Doctors Community’s lobbying expenditures.

“I understand the concept of lobbying,” Ms. Dixon said. “But what is inexcusable is for the company to spend that kind of money in the financial position that the hospital finds itself. These problems didn’t happen overnight. The hospital has been in a precarious financial state for years.”

Under a consent decree reached with health regulators, hospital administrators have two months to persuade D.C. Health Department officials not to revoke Greater Southeast’s license.

Officials are concerned about what will happen if the hospital fails to improve services.

“The failure of Greater Southeast to improve during the most recent period of [inspections] cannot help but be distressing and discouraging,” D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote in a letter sent to Mr. Williams yesterday. “A turnaround perhaps was not expected, but neither was such a steep decline.”



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