D.C. launches investigation into GW Hospital

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams ordered an investigation Thursday into reports that the GW Hospital refused to treat a patient because she is a black resident of Southeast D.C.

The call for an investigation comes several days after paramedics told the city that the hospital arbitrarily closed its doors Saturday night to a 97-year-old woman who went into diabetic shock.

“We need to know what happened, why it happened and who is responsible,” Williams said in a press release. “District residents and visitors to our city need to have a level of confidence in the emergency medical operations we have in place.”

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department will conduct the investigation.

“We’re going to hear all sides of the story, obviously,” said Alan Etter, the department’s spokesman. “We’ll look into everything and see if (the incident) occurred as has been alleged.

“The paramedics have put forward some allegations that we consider serious,” he added.

While fire department officials have declined to discuss details of the investigation, Williams said the hospital’s emergency room closed its doors Saturday night without notifying city officials. On busy nights, hospital emergency rooms often go on “re-route” and divert ambulances to other hospitals for two hours so they can handle existing patients.

Hospital officials said they informed Emergency Medical Services staff that they were shutting down shortly before receiving a call that an elderly woman from Anacostia was being transported to GW.

“We let them know what our position was and what we needed to treat our patients,” said Hospital Communications Manager Marti Harris.

After being told by paramedics that the patient could not be diverted, GW admitted the woman, who was in stable condition as of Friday afternoon. On Thursday, the Washington Times reported that the woman died after waiting for thirty minutes outside the hospital in an ambulance.

The story prompted an uproar from city officials, who charged that hospital employees rejected the patient because she is black and from a low-income area of D.C.

While some of the furor over the incident subsided after it was determined that the hospital admitted the patient, city officials said GW never asked permission to shut down its emergency room.

“We have no record of GW requesting to go on re-route,” said Tony Bullok, the mayor’s communications director.

Bullok said paramedics have filed several complaints against ER Director Robert Shesser.

“The condition of the patient is not the issue,” he said. “The issue is … was there some racial aspect to the directive to take the ambulance to Greater Southeast when the ambulance was on its way to GW?”

Hospital CEO Dan McLean sought to dispel notions that the hospital discriminates against patients.

“We do not racial profile … We have policies on how we handle emergency room diversions,” said McLean at a Thursday afternoon press conference in Washington Circle.

“We will continue to be open to all members of the community,” he added.

McLean blamed the “already overburdened emergency departments” resulting from the partial closure of two D.C. hospitals for the decision to turn away ambulances.

“We believe we have a system that’s under severe stress,” he said.

The closing of D.C. General in 2001 and Greater Southeast Community Hospital’s severe funding and staffing shortage has crippled the District’s ability to provide care to its 600,000 residents, said Joan Lewis, senior vice president of the D.C. Hospital Association.

GW Hospital has seen its emergency visits increase by 27 percent between June 2002 and June 2003, the last month for which statistics are available.

Lewis said the city has no immediate plans to cope with the surge in visits and said she was concerned about the District’s ability to handle a terrorist attack or SARS epidemic.

“There is no inkling by the city to rebuild a D.C. General, so there’s a lot of concern about capacity,” Lewis said, adding, “We’re pretty much on edge.”

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