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Gray positions himself for fight with Bowser over United Medical Center

Posted on Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Vincent Gray was the first D.C. mayor to budget funding for a new Southeast D.C. hospital to replace United Medical Center — and he had no intention during a recent health oversight hearing of letting anyone forget it.
Vincent Gray was the first D.C. mayor to budget funding for a new Southeast D.C. hospital to replace United Medical Center — and he had no intention during a recent health oversight hearing of letting anyone forget it.

When he was mayor in 2014 and was facing a close Democratic primary, he proposed $336 million for a new hospital on the St. Elizabeths campus — but the D.C. Council at the time didn't back him, he mentioned several times at the hearing last week. The current mayor is doing another study to determine the feasibility for such a hospital — something he also pointed out he'd already done.

vince graymuriel bowserCouncilmember and former Mayor Vincent Gray appeared to be queuing up a conflict with Mayor Muriel Bowser during his committee hearing this week.While he has been coy about whether he will run against Mayor Muriel Bowser in the next primary, Gray was making no secret of his new strategy: to put more pressure on plans to build a replacement hospital east of the Anacostia River — an issue on which Bowser has moved more slowly. One by one, Gray tried to force those recently testifying before him, including Bowser's staff, to publicly state the need for a new hospital for wards 7 and 8.

“What is your position on the need for a new hospital on the east end of the District?” Gray, the new chairman of the D.C. Council health committee, asked several times of Jacqueline Bowens, who became president and CEO of the D.C. Hospital Association in November.

Bowens, who joined the UMC board because it is required by statute as part of her new job, tried to dodge the question. “Working together, we can find that solution and, most importantly, make sure that families receive the care they deserve within their own neighborhoods,” Bowens said. “What that looks like, you know, I’m looking forward to working with you to get there.”

Gray wasn't satisfied. "Let me go back to my question," Gray said. He asked Bowens whether a new hospital to replace UMC, now the only hospital east of the Anacostia, would be an important element to turning around the health system's shortcomings. She worded her response carefully. "My personal opinion is that I agree with you," Bowens said.

"Well, I hope you will help us make that happen, and I will be looking to your membership in the hospital association to make that happen," he told her.

He repeatedly pushed HyeSook Chung, Bowser's deputy mayor for health and human services, to go on the record about whether residents east of the Anacostia River deserve a new hospital. Chung demurred.

"They certainly have the right to expect good quality health services. It's unconscionable we continue to debate the undebatable," Gray said.

"Actually, I'm not debating," Chung said. "I wholeheartedly agree with you we have to investigate and explore the possibility of creating a new hospital and, as I said, I want to make sure it is the right size and financially sound."

Gray took the last word. "The feasibility of creating a new hospital and health care system, I think, has already been settled," he said.

Finally, Veritas employee and UMC CEO Luis Hernandez took the mic with UMC board member Virgil McDonald. Veritas is UMC's new hospital turnaround company hired under Bowser's tenure and includes leadership from Bowser donor Corbett Price.

Following Hernandez's testimony about UMC's performance, Gray needled him about whether he had a vision for the hospital. Hernandez said his vision was improving hospital quality and convincing patients of it.

"The best I could say about the testimony you've provided today is to just keep the doors open," Gray said. "When are you going to articulate a vision of how you get there?"

Then, Gray moved to the issue of a new hospital. Hernandez, too, appeared reluctant to commit to building a replacement. "That is not something we've been charged with," Hernandez replied, referring to Veritas' contract with the District to operate the hospital and improve its financial picture.

Gray pounced. "How can you not take that on as a responsibility? If I was CEO, there's no way I would've taken the job in the first place if you couldn't tell me where we fit in the larger context of health care on the east end of the city," he said.

McDonald jumped in to reiterate the UMC board's support for a new hospital. Hernandez pointed to the executive branch, including the mayor's office, for taking the lead on the idea for a new facility.

"You're a health care professional. You're CEO. Do you support a new hospital?" Gray asked Hernandez. "Yes or no?"

Hernandez refused to answer. But his answer didn't matter, really. Gray had used much of his oversight hearing on the hospital to launch a fight over what could become a central issue in an upcoming campaign. He was reclaiming the issue of United Medical Center's future as his own.