D.C. Health Decisions Behind Closed Doors: What Are the United Medical Center Trustees Hiding?

This week the board that oversees the District’s only public hospital, United Medical Center, met for a while in public but then pulled down the curtain and went out of sight. Maybe if your multi-million dollar business had only a few days cash left in its kitty, you'd hide, too.

What you couldn’t hear or see was a vote to end the hospital’s prenatal and obstetrics care—another blow to the southeast part of D.C. that already gets the short end of the stick for many city services. Was that smart -- the board chair said it reflected declining use of that unit and surplus of obstetrics beds around town generally. Maybe Howard and Unity will pick up the slack? Who knows. And what about the deal with GWU to run the UMC emergency room; another $7.5 million--will that do what's needed?

No question the hospital is troubled, but why not share with the public all of what’s going on?

Only when trust is restored -- trust that city leaders know the problems, grasp the awful economics of health care in 21st century urban America, and have sound plans for solution -- will the public agree to the kinds of high-flying consultants’ salaries (that the Coalition couldn't find in the recently canceled Veritas contract and only one of which was finally revealed when Council Member Vincent Gray shamed one of the Veritas executives at a hearing a few weeks ago) or the ballooning subsidies involved ($17 million is the latest number floated this week).

In the latest episode, the board went into closed session without the procedures required by the D.C. Open Meetings Act. Possible closing was in the published draft agenda (“to discuss collective bargaining agreements, personnel, and discipline matters”), but according to those present there was no explanation to those in the room of the basis for closing (the board chair reportedly said "counsel okayed it" but couldn't say the basis) and no roll-call vote to close.

Then, behind the curtain, the board took votes in its closed meeting and the chair declined to give the tallies afterwards -- that raises questions as well.

The DC Open Government Coalition has asked the D.C. Office of Open Government to review details of the December 13 meeting (including the recording required to be made, even of closed sessions) to check for any steps, required in law, that the board left out.  The Office can file suit and ask a court to void any decisions made in meetings improperly closed.

The future of healthcare for a lot of residents is too important to decide in the darkness.

Coverage is here in NBC 4, Post and Washington Business J.