- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

The District’s top mental health official says plans are under way to build a new St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast amid increasing concern over the state of the 150-year-old institution.

Martha Knisley, director of the D.C. Department of Mental Health, said the new mental hospital likely will open by the fall of 2007 at a cost of between $105 million and $110 million.

The new hospital will house 292 patients, down from the current census of about 450. Three other buildings on the campus will be renovated to house patients if there is not enough room in the new hospital, officials said.

The project is moving forward as the city’s mental health department faces criticism over current conditions at St. Elizabeths.

Last week, a federally chartered watchdog group filed a federal lawsuit against the District, saying failing conditions have led to the deaths of several patients, while others have been forced to live in bug- and rat-infested conditions.

Miss Knisley said she could not comment on the lawsuit. But speaking generally, she said she believes conditions at St. Elizabeths have been improving lately.

“The conditions we found at this hospital in 2001 were absolutely deplorable,” she said. “I think the issues with the infrastructure were brought to everybody’s attention by this department and this mayor, who wanted to take back the mental health system and clean it up.”

In a lawsuit filed last week, University Legal Services Inc. depicts St. Elizabeths as a place where patients “suffer deprivations that require immediate action.”

The group says hospital staff and patients have been subjected to “increasingly dangerous conditions” caused by crumbling infrastructure and staffing shortages.

City attorneys on Wednesday filed a legal brief in the case, saying St. Elizabeths is already under court-ordered monitoring through a still-active lawsuit filed in 1974 on behalf of hospital patients.

Among documents in the lawsuit is a letter from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to the hospital in January, in which federal regulators ordered hospital administrators to correct problems found in medical records and patient treatment plans.

The letter said the hospital risked being dropped from Medicare if the problems were not corrected. A spokeswoman for the federal agency yesterday said the hospital received $437,992 in Medicare for the treatment of St. Elizabeths patients.

Miss Knisley said those problems have been corrected. She also said the agency’s findings show an improvement over previous reviews of the hospital.

In addition, she said the concerns have prompted an inquiry from the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division about conditions at the hospital, adding that her agency is cooperating with the inquiry.

“There have been improvements at the hospital,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go. We’ve been very transparent about what we’ve been able to get fixed and what we haven’t.”

Founded in 1855, St. Elizabeths was the federal government’s hospital for the mentally ill. But vacated buildings fell into disrepair as patient levels dropped from 7,000 in the 1940s to fewer than 500 today.

The federal government transferred hospital operations to the city in 1987. The campus, at 2700 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, comprises more than 144 buildings on more than 300 acres.

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