The fate of United Medical Center remains unsettling to many residents of wards 7 and 8
Passionate and upset D.C. residents packed shoulder-to-shoulder into room 412 of the Wilson Building for a six-hour hearing on Oct. 25; the subject that brought them there was the future of the only hospital east of the Anacostia River. Thirty minutes prior to the hearing advocates with the D.C. Health Justice Coalition held a rally and there was not an empty seat in the hearing room.
Currently, wards 7 and 8 face a health crisis. United Medical Center, the only hospital that is easily accessible to wards 7 and 8 residents is not able to consistently provide quality care and will be shut down. Councilmember Gray has been working to ensure that a new hospital will be an improvement over United Medical Center. More than 20 nurses and residents from wards 7 and 8 had signed up to testify.
Gray opened the hearing saying he has seen the “highs and lows of UMC,” emphasizing that he understands what the hospital has been through.
Gray discussed his actions to ensure the quality of the new hospital and mentioned the $336 million that was allocated for the new hospital when he served as mayor of D.C., as well as advancement of the opening to 2022 instead of 2023.
Gray confirmed that the current United Medical Center will stay open until the opening of the new hospital, responding to a concern that was troubling many attendees at the hearings. The new hospital is expected to provide trauma services at either a 3 or 4 level.
Trauma levels range from 1 to 5. The definitions of the different levels regarding the current issue are as follows, according to the American Trauma Society.
A level 3 trauma center has “an ability to provide prompt assessment, resuscitation, surgery, intensive care and stabilization of injured patients and emergency operations.”
A level 4 trauma center has “an ability to provide advanced trauma life support prior to transfer of patients to a higher level trauma center. It provides evaluation, stabilization, and diagnostic capabilities for injured patients.”
In contrast to levels 3 and 4, a level 1 trauma center is “capable of providing total care for every aspect of injury – from prevention through rehabilitation.”
Gray said his goal is to build the healthcare system in wards 7 and 8. Since wards 7 and 8 have never really had a durable healthcare system, Gray will be working from the ground up, with the new hospital serving as the initial response to this goal.
In a recent interview, Gray expressed the concern that many residents are not being provided with the medical services they are insured for.
“We have 97% of our people who have health insurance,” said Gray.
His provision to this concern is the opening of a new urgent care center with MBI Health Services at the intersection of Nannie Helen Burroughs and Division Avenue in April of 2020. This will be the first urgent care center east of the Anacostia River.
Many testimonials were emotional. Testifiers were seen holding back tears, raising their voices, and expressing utter disappointment with their government officials.
Minette Blandon, a nurse of 35 years and current resident of Ward 5, was one of the first to testify. “I’m here today as grandma,” said Blandon, holding back tears. Her grandchildren live in Ward 8, and she asked why “residents in wards 7 and 8 [were] being treated like second-class citizens?”
Blandon told Gray that “lives east of the river are in [his] hand.”
Emma Holland, a nurse currently at UMC, also fought tears during her testimony. “We cannot wait until 2022 to fix it,” stated Holland. “Lives are at stake.”
Gray noted several misconceptions regarding the state of the hospital, including the status of the new hospital’s opening, UMC’s trauma-level status, and the previous implementation of urgent cares in wards 7 and 8.
Several individuals, including Manon Manchett, a 23-year resident of ward 8, described the positive treatment that they received at UMC and said the city budget should provide more funding for both medical services and its workers. After experiencing a difficult labor and delivery that resulted in the death of her infant, Manchett said there was no other hospital she would rather go to.
“UMC saved my life,” said Manchett, describing high quality care that she received from UMC physicians. Like Holland, Manchett emphasized the need for change in the interim before new hospital is open. To these residents, it is important to ensure that medical care currently being provided at UMC remains available while a new hospital is being built.
Manchett described her experience at UMC as “a cocktail made of love, empathy, sympathy, quality, care and service”.
“It is inhumane and criminal not to fund UMC,” said Manchett. The Ward 8 resident requested that more funding from the council go into improving the quality of care at United Medical Center.
Person after person voiced concerns with the quality of care, leading to the consensus that an increase in funding for these services is the only solution to this problem.
Although both Gray and the community members agree that United Medical Center is not providing adequate services, there is not agreement on how to address the issue.
The majority of testifiers supported UMC being salvaged, while Gray was more focused on how to improve the situation issue in the future. With new urgent care centers and a hospital being built, Gray appears not to be looking to fix what is in the past.
He addressed a misconception about the UMC budget being cut by explaining that the subsidy was what was actually decreased. The subsidy was cut from 40 million to 25 million dollars.
“It looked as though the hospital was on a pathway to overrun the budget by as much as $70 million on top of that $125 million,” said Gray, explaining the reason for its cut.
“Every dollar invested in UMC is being invested effectively,” said Gray.
Nathan Luecking, a social worker at Anacostia High School, highlighted the need to increase accessibility with a new hospital. Luecking has dealt with severe issues while working as a social worker, including events that have ended fatally. Luecking’s student, Jared Watson, was shot 17 times and was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Referring to the amount of time it took to get to the hospital, Luecking asked, “Did that make the difference in life or death?” Luecking shared this story to advocate for health services that citizens in Anacostia can easily access. “We need a level 1 trauma center in Ward 8,” he said.
In a recent interview, Gray evaluated the necessity for a level 1 trauma center, stating that it was “not likely to happen.” However, he said there are minimal differences between the levels of trauma services. Essentially, not every hospital needs to be a level 1 trauma center in order to treat incoming trauma cases efficiently, he said.
“Let me make that perfectly clear,” said Gray during the hearing, referring to his repeated statement that there is no intention to shut down United Medical Center before opening the new hospital.
“I’ve spent so many waking hours on THIS,” continued Gray, referring to the healthcare crisis in D.C.
Responding to multiple concerns voiced by the testimonial speakers, Gray reminded attendees of his plan to open urgent care centers in wards 7 and 8, which will greatly reduce unnecessary emergency room visits. Although Gray sees this reform as beneficial, his response did not sit well with his listeners.
Yvonne Sloarski, communications director for the D.C. Health Justice Coalition, expressed concerns with Councilmen Gray’s responses to testimony from the public. Sloarski said she disapproved of “Councilmember Gray’s consistent saying that we need urgent care centers as opposed to sort of a full service, fully funded hospital.”
In the interview, Gray also shared plans for a new medical building to be implemented in the Skyland Town Center in Ward 7. The building will include several services, including obstetrics, primary care, cardiology, and neurology. These service lines are expected to grow in the next five to ten years.
The Councilmember continued to reshare his provisions by discussing Whitman Walker Health’s plan to provide health services at St. Elizabeth’s campus in a new building that is to be built for them.
“I think we are excited about the fact that many people care enough to come down here and testify,” said Gray.
He noted that this situation really does show the “tale of two cities,”
The councilmember will continue to host oversight hearings every few weeks as he monitors D.C.’s health crisis. At these meetings, civilians are given the opportunity to voice concerns directly to councilmen Gray. Although the next oversight hearing is yet to be scheduled, the next Health Public Hearing is set for Dec. 18 in room 500 of the Wilson Building at 11:00 a.m.
“I know we’re going to get there. I’m convinced of it,” Gray said.