Policy: Health Care

D.C. hospital bleeds cash as city seeks solution

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer,Phil Mendelson,Jack Evans,Health Care

United Medical Center, which has been kept afloat with more than $100 million in cash infusions from D.C. taxpayers since 2007, faces more budget shortfalls amid reports of poor customer service and severely limited staff in key areas.

That's the stark reality faced by Huron Healthcare, a consulting firm that the District is paying about $11 million to help turn around the 350-bed hospital in Southeast.

The hospital's financial performance has taken an $8.5 million turn for the worse in the first half of this fiscal year, with operating losses of $3.75 million compared with a profit of nearly $4.75 million at this time last year.

Source: Huron Healthcare

A money pit
D.C. taxpayers pump more and more cash into United Medical Center:
» Fiscal 2011: $60 million ($20 million returned to the city)
» 2012: $7.7 million
» 2013: $11.0 million

For a time, the Ward 8 hospital had a single general practice surgeon on staff, meaning the surgeon was always on call.

"It's more than highly unusual; I've never seen it before," Dawn Gideon, managing director at Huron, told D.C. Council members and the mayor Tuesday morning.

Given the shortage, then, another oddity Gideon noted should come as less of a shock: For several days in a row, the hospital didn't conduct any surgeries. That means the hospital is missing out on a type of medical care that can actually bring the financially ailing facility some revenue.

While surgeries are down by 11.5 percent compared with the previous fiscal year, emergency room visits are up. Very few emergency room visits at United Medical Center translate into patients being admitted, so the hospital often loses money on those patients.

"Health care finance is arcane, and consultants are what we need to dig ourselves out," D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Tuesday afternoon.

The hospital has long struggled, and many council members would like to see a hospital chain take control. But given the hurdles facing United Medical Center, that is unlikely without some improvement.

The consulting firm recommended a number of changes, including aggressively expanding ambulatory services, improving the hospital's quality of service, reducing employee turnover and establishing specialty physicians.

United Medical Center ranks in the lowest 1 percent in the nation for customer satisfaction, according to Gideon.

Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans described that performance as "horrendous."

"The hospital in every category has completely failed," he said.

However, it is unlikely that the city would close United. Most council members would like to see a vibrant hospital continue to operate east of the Anacostia River.

"The political reality of the situation is you need a full-service hospital," Evans said. He questioned whether the consultants had moved the city closer to a solution.

"I'm scratching my head why I was there wasting two hours of my time and why we are paying these people," he said.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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