- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has approved a health activist group’s ballot drive that seeks to force the D.C. government to reopen the city’s only public hospital.

“The health care system in this city is a total failure,” said Jennifer Ellingston, a member and one of the organizers of the D.C. Healthcare Coalition’s petition drive.

The group’s petition drive stems from dissatisfaction over the city’s decision to close D.C. General Hospital in 2001, Miss Ellingston said.

Organizers say the initiative, which began this week, will require about 20,000 signatures by July. The group wants voters to decide in the November general election whether the District should have a public hospital.

The Board of Elections approved the group’s ballot initiative Tuesday, a move that frees organizers to begin getting signatures. If enough signatures are obtained, the following statement would appear on the November ballot:

“This initiative, if passed, will restore a full-service public hospital in the District of Columbia to provide accessible health care for all residents of the District of Columbia. A public hospital would provide health care including emergency services to all persons.”

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, criticized the effort, saying, “The problem with this proposal is that it doesn’t provide any information as to where this money would come from.”

Mr. Bullock denied that the city’s health care system is in trouble. He said the city-funded D.C. Healthcare Alliance provides free health services for tens of thousands of city residents. The program started after D.C. General Hospital was closed.

“Our alliance program is working well,” Mr. Bullock said. “We don’t have the money to do both. The alliance costs about $100 million per year. A public hospital would require money well in excess of that.”

But Miss Ellingston said petition organizers are upset at a series of setbacks since the alliance program began, including the bankruptcy and near closure of Greater Southeast Community Hospital.

“It’s been a fiasco,” Miss Ellingston said. “The solution to privatize the city’s only public hospital meant millions of dollars going to Greater Southeast. That’s obviously been a huge failure.”

Miss Ellingston said she also has concerns about the city’s ongoing negotiations with Howard University to build a hospital on the grounds of D.C. General in Ward 6.

Mr. Williams’ administration has been negotiating with the university since last year. Howard would receive a 99-year lease from the District to operate a full-service, Trauma Level 1 facility with between 200 and 300 beds, under a memorandum of understanding with the city.

“This hospital would be private, and it’s just a repeat of another failure,” Miss Ellingston said. “It’s totally ignoring the demand for a public hospital.”

Mr. Bullock said Mr. Williams favors providing public land for the proposed facility but opposes having the city manage the hospital.

“A public hospital is an assailed and antiquated public health model,” Mr. Bullock said. “We’re not going to go back in time.”

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