D.C. Council shelves bill expediting construction of GW Hospital bed tower

Media Credit: Skylar Epstein | Hatchet Photographer

The D.C. Council is holding off on debating a controversial bill that would expedite the construction of a new tower to accommodate an extra 220 beds at the GW Hospital.

The D.C. Council is holding off on debating a controversial bill that would expedite the construction of a new tower to accommodate an extra 220 beds at the GW Hospital.

The Council tabled the legislation at a meeting Tuesday after passing four amendments intended to make the bill more amiable to its opponents. Some have criticized legislators for failing to consult with the community before proposing the legislation, while proponents have said the bill would more quickly open the doors of a new hospital on the East End that the GW Hospital agreed to operate earlier this year.

The amendments passed Tuesday scaled back the tower’s size, made constructing the hospital in Southeast D.C. the top priority, protected employees’ jobs and created a partnership between the GW and Howard University hospitals. The East End Health Equity Act of 2018, which was initially proposed in September, would accelerate the construction of the tower by allowing the hospital to bypass District protocol that would determine if the project is a public need.

Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Patrick Kennedy said the bill could potentially increase traffic in Foggy Bottom or cause other inconveniences, but they pale in comparison to the benefits of the new hospital in Southeast D.C. But he said commissioners have rejected the legislation – and continue to oppose it – because the amendments don’t address constituents’ main concerns about the hospital bypassing a certificate of need process.

“It strikes me a little odd that we’re planning health care policy basically on the back of a cocktail napkin and that this is a bunch of politicians just moving beds around like some sort of shell game,” he said.

Amendments to the bill
Councilmember Vincent Gray, one of the original sponsors of the bill, proposed two amendments to cut the size of the tower from 270 to 220 beds and transfer 50 beds to the new hospital in Southeast D.C. One of the amendments also prioritized the development of the new hospital in the East End over the construction of the new tower at GW Hospital.

“I’m very proud to move this amendment today because it makes the health system even better for residents of the East End,” Gray said.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman introduced a third amendment to protect unionized nurses and medical technicians at United Medical Center, the facility that the new hospital will replace, with a bargaining agreement.

The amendment – which was passed by a 8-3-1 vote – would ensure the employees could transfer to the new hospital and that employees receive the same labor protections as they did at United Medical Center.

The GW Hospital and Universal Health Services, a company that has 80 percent ownership of the hospital, have previously cracked down on unions for hospital workers by stalling negotiations that called for a new contract for employees.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Universal Health Services has already done the “ultimate in union busting” by attempting to “decertify” the workers’ union at GW Hospital. He said voting against the amendment proposed by Silverman would be “screwing the union” because the project would not protect employees.

“I kind of knew that GW was saying, ‘Well, we’ll do the new hospital but we don’t want a union there,’” he said. “Councilmember Silverman is bringing this to a head, front and center before us, and we can’t walk away from the union.”

Council members also passed an amendment proposed by Councilmember Trayon White that would create a partnership between GW Hospital and Howard University Hospital to sustain Howard University Hospital when many of its patients in Southeast D.C. would be redirected to GW Hospital for specialized care after the new hospital opens.

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick told The Washington Post last month that competition from an expansion of the GW Hospital would force Howard’s hospital to shut down.

“The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that Howard University College of Medicine can transition some of its pinnacle and strategic operations to the east end hospital,” White told The Post.

Community leaders voice concerns
University spokeswoman Lindsay Hamilton said the University does not support the construction of the new bed tower but hopes the East End construction will move forward.

“As we have said from the beginning, if the GW Medical Faculty Associates physicians are properly compensated, we want to be part of that effort,” Hamilton said in an email.

She declined to say why the University does not support the new bed tower, how the University plans to respond to the amendments, whether the University supports the amended proposal and how GW has worked with the community on the issue.

The local ANC originally opposed the bill in October and reaffirmed its stance at an emergency meeting last month. Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution last week supporting the University in its opposition of the expedited construction of the tower, citing a lack of transparency from the GW Hospital.

ANC Chairman William Kennedy Smith said he was “pleased” to see Silverman’s amendment protecting unionized workers because the District should continue to ensure equitable treatment for employees, many of whom have spent decades serving D.C. communities.

Smith said the ANC is working with groups like the D.C. Nurses Association, labor unions and activists in Wards 7 and 8 to bring community concerns about the bill to Council members.

“The impact of this project is going to be profound, wide-ranging and last for decades, and it is very important that we get it right because it’s a large project,” he said.

Marina Streznewski, the president of the Foggy Bottom Association, said the bill would not improve health care conditions in Southeast D.C. because residents would still be sent across the city for specialized care.

Streznewski added that Foggy Bottom residents are hesitant to support the bill because they want to ensure the construction of 220 beds in Foggy Bottom will actually improve the lack of medical services in Southeast D.C. rather than profit Universal Health Services.

“We don’t want to take the hit if it’s not going to help other people in the city, if it’s just going to line the pockets of a for-profit corporation,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the GW Hospital did not return a request for comment.

Dani Grace and Lizzie Mintz contributed reporting.

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