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Questions Surround Proposed Hospital

A public hearing held last week by Washington, D.C. City Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large) made one thing abundantly clear: There are still many unanswered questions regarding the proposed National Capital Medical Center to be located on the Reservation 13 site on the outskirts of Capitol Hill.

“I have brought to every hearing [on this subject] the same questions,” D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said in his opening statement. A couple of his questions, such as what is the District’s need for a new hospital facility and where is that facility most needed, seem simple enough, but he said they have yet to be answered.

“Two hundred million dollars or more of public monies to make this hospital happen — these questions need to be answered,” Graham said.

City Administrator Robert Bobb, who testified at the hearing, said the NCMC will cost “about $400 million in today’s dollars.” But many of the councilmembers, even as they support the idea of the NCMC, wanted to know exactly what that money would buy.

“Isn’t George Washington University Hospital a world-class hospital that doesn’t turn people away?” Graham asked Bobb, who said the NCMC would be such a hospital. “Didn’t [GWU Hospital] cost just about $100 million? This proposed hospital is four times the cost.”

In January 2004, a Memorandum of Understanding outlined that the District would enter into a long-term lease with Howard University for 9 acres of the Reservation 13 site along Independence Avenue and 20th Street Southeast in Ward 6. The MOU, unanimously approved by city council in May 2004, also stated that the university would build, own and operate a new hospital with Level One trauma capabilities, a medical office building and a research complex. The purpose of the hearing held by Catania, chairman of the Health Committee, was to discuss the progress of the NCMC plan.

“Is this plan perfect? Probably not,” D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp (D) said of the NCMC proposal. However, she said the council unanimously voted for this hospital to be built on Reservation 13 because there is a need for health care in that area.

“We have the opportunity to allow our citizens to go not 10 miles, but three to four miles like everyone else,” Cropp said.

The primary service area for the NCMC would include part of Ward 5 and Wards 6 and 7, with other wards falling into the secondary service area. However, Bobb said the hospital “will be for everyone.”

“While it will serve some of our neediest residents, it will not be a poor person’s hospital,” Bobb said, adding that NCMC “will fill a gaping hole on the District’s hospital map.”

But whether NCMC would be a “poor person’s hospital” was yet another issue that those at the hearing did not agree on.

“I have no problem with a poor person’s hospital as long as it provides excellent care,” Catania said as he pointed out that NCMC will need to have a “public purpose” and that it can’t just be a “return” of D.C. General Hospital, which closed its doors in 2001.

D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) said his ward was the highest user of D.C. General when it was open, but there were some who “didn’t go there because of its mantra as a poor person’s hospital.” He said he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to NCMC.

“Since when did we want to create a two-tier health care system?” D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) asked during her opening statement. “I am astounded that we’re talking about a hospital for the poor.”

Catania fired back after Ambrose’s statement as he said, “I am astounded that we’re not talking about a hospital for poor people.” Throughout the hearing Catania said over and over again that the underinsured and uninsured need to have access to health care, and that’s what he wants NCMC to deliver.

“It is clear that the people of the District of Columbia need a full-service hospital on the east side of the city,” Bobb said. And while no one disagreed with that statement, some said the Reservation 13 parcel that the District and Howard University are looking at still is not accessible enough to those living east of the Anacostia River.

“The greatest need for a hospital is in Ward 7,” Ambrose said although she added that Gray’s ward does not have as much free land as the Reservation 13 site. “I think we haven’t looked hard enough for land in Ward 7. West of the river is not in Ward 7, [for those living east of the river, the NCMC would be] accessible only by bridges.”

But some said having to drive over a bridge to reach the NCMC is better than Ward 7 residents living east of the river having to drive over a bridge plus many more miles to receive care at one of the existing hospitals.

“It will be centrally located between major freeways, bridges and the Stadium-Armory Metro station,” Bobb said of the NCMC site that is south of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in what some are referring to as the “Hill-East neighborhood.”

The need for health care access in the eastern part of the District might be one of the only things councilmembers and witnesses agreed on at last week’s hearing. And while there are still a lot of details to iron out, Graham is hoping that a name change for the facility is not out of the question.

While Howard University Senior Vice President Hassan Minor attempted to defend the choice of NCMC as the proposed name for the hospital at the hearing, Graham wasn’t having it as he said the name NCMC “captures some other ambition.”

“I see a National Capital Medical Center. George Washington University Hospital. Washington Hospital Center,” Graham said. “I see a hospital that is going to quack and walk and move like the other ducks.”

All legal and financial details for the NCMC are due to be finalized by Oct. 1, when Mayor Anthony Williams (D) will submit to council an “Exclusive Rights Agreement between the District and Howard University to govern the development of a hospital” on part of Reservation 13, according to a NCMC proposal prepared by the District and the university.

“I want this hospital to be built, but I want to do it right,” Catania said.

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