- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2003

It will likely be some time before we know precisely what happened Oct. 11, when a physician in the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital tried to divert an ambulance carrying a critically ill elderly woman. “We need to know what happened, why it happened and who is responsible,” the mayor said in calling for an inquiry. But while cooler heads prevailed, this life-and-death matter spun on untempered and unchecked commentary.

The facts so far are disconcerting: Paramedics contacted GWU hospital in Northwest to let them know they were en route with an elderly patient from Southeast. The hospital’s director of emergency medicine told them the emergency room was closed, and he suggested they take the patient — the critically ill, 97-year-old patient — back to Southeast.

The facts are unclear after that — overtaken by name-calling and finger-pointing from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. A respectable D.C. lawmaker said the actions of the emergency medicine director had “a racist overtone.” A paramedic said, in a letter to the city’s fire chief, that the director never asks “where a white patient was transported from.” In between those remarks came rumors of the elderly woman’s death. Meanwhile, the hospital’s CEO, Dan McLean, blamed the city’s public-health policies, while Mayor Tony Williams sternly warned GWU and other hospitals that “Arbitrary and unauthorized closures of emergency room operations will not be tolerated.”

To be sure, the distemper wasn’t solely in reaction to the Oct. 11 incident. The city’s health-care system has been operating in crisis mode for more than a decade. The mayor and the council can call it any name they like — D.C. General Hospital, Public Hospital and Benefits Corp., the Healthcare Alliance. The bottom line is that, by any name, the city’s health-care costs always break the budget, with current overspending pegged at $18 million.

We commend the mayor for ordering an inquiry into the Oct. 11 incident. However, we urged him sometime ago to develop a Plan B, and longer-range plans, after the hospital in Southeast went broke and again after it lost its accreditation. Many politicians (and political wannabes) in this city would love to see blood on the mayor’s hands because of failed leadership. With a new city manager, Robert Bobb, on board, now is the perfect time for the Williams administration and other stakeholders — including Mr. McLean of GWU Hospital — to develop long-term financial and management health-care policies that aid the general public, as well as private concerns. Right now, that is not the case.

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