Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.
It’s no secret that poor African-American residents of D.C. east of the Anacostia River get shafted while the rest of the nation’s capital basks in boom times.
The divide came into stark relief last week with reports of another poor person dying under questionable circumstances under the care of the United Medical Center, the only hospital east of the river. For decades the District’s publicly owned hospital has served up subpar health care, while largely white neighborhoods west of the Anacostia can choose from four hospitals that are among the nation’s best.
How come? The cost of caring for the city’s most poor and vulnerable is high with little return, for sure. But in sorting through the contracts and connections, I can’t help but see money, politics and mismanagement contributing to the undependable health care.
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All of that will come into play Tuesday, when the D.C. Council is scheduled to weigh the extension of the contract to manage UMC.
The latest abomination came to light thanks to excellent reporting by the Washington Post’s Peter Jamison. Warren Webb, a UMC nursing home patient with AIDS, died Aug. 25 after begging for help, falling out of his bed and dying in his own excrement on the floor. The hospital then fudged reports on the incident.
Webb’s death followed a drumbeat of disheartening news reported by Jamison and the Washington Business Journal’s Tina Reed. In July the hospital lost track of a body. In August the D.C. health department shut down the obstetrics unit because of inadequate care. In early October the nurses voted “no confidence” in the hospital’s management company, Veritas.
Last week the Council’s health committee grilled Veritas officials on why the company deserved a $4.2 million extension of a contract that’s already paid the firm $5 million in public funds.
David Boucree, the Veritas official running UMC, acknowledged he had no experience running a health care facility.
“It raises a lot of questions for me,” at-large Council member Elissa Silverman tells me.
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How did Veritas, a company that’s been in D.C. for a couple of years, land such a sweet contract? Answer: great connections and campaign contributions, rather than stellar credentials.
Corbett Price is behind Veritas, though he’s not formally listed in its leadership.
“I am a senior advisor,” Price tells me.
Price has been in the business of working with troubled public hospitals for decades, starting in the 1990s with his company Kurron. But he has not always achieved positive results.
“During that time,” said a report by WNYC public radio, “Kurron and Price have cut a trail of financial and medical mismanagement, run-ins with regulators and public controversies -- not least repeated clashes with health care unions -- up and down the Eastern Seaboard.”
Price acknowledged the negative stories but says: “Most restructuring people get lousy press.” When Interfaith Medical Center, the public hospital he was managing in New York, went bankrupt, Price started Veritas in D.C., where he had family roots.
Price is married to Chrystie Boucree, a member of a well-connected Ward 4 family close to Mayor Muriel Bowser. Her parents, Dr. Stanley Boucree and Catherine, are said to be close to Bowser’s parents. In 2014 Bowser put Dr. Boucree on her transition team.
Bowser’s office did not respond to questions about Price.
When Corbett Price set up shop in D.C., the Boucrees asked him to raise funds for Bowser, who was running for her first term, he says. “I held a fundraiser for her in Martha’s Vineyard,” he says. “That’s were I first met her.”
Price, his companies and family would contribute more than $35,000 to the mayor’s campaign, campaign finance records show. Though Price had no transit experience and had not lived in the D.C. region, Bowser appointed him to the Metro board.
Enter Wayne Turnage, executive director of D.C.’s Health Care Finance Agency, responsible for funding UMC. Huron Consulting Group, hired by then-mayor Vincent Gray, had exited the hospital.
“Find an operator,” Bowser told Turnage, he tells me.
Without putting the contract out to bid, Turnage approached Price, because he believed Price had experience turning hospitals around. Turnage says Bowser “did not recommend Price but was aware of the contract.”
Did Price’s turnaround efforts in New York and another problem project in the Bahamas present red flags? “No,” Turnage says. “They did a good job in New York. You have to do unpopular things in that situation.”
Turnage presented the Veritas contract to the UMC board, which approved it.
Corbett Price installed his wife as Veritas president. She then brought on her cousin, David, to manage UMC.
Capitalizing on political connections and installing family members doesn’t disqualify Veritas, but it doesn’t instill confidence either. UMC’s chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Craig, last week charged Veritas with “mismanagement and malfeasance.” Veritas’ detailed response called his charges false.
On the surface, UMC shows well. Last Thursday David Boucree gave me a tour of the hospital, on Southern Avenue bordering Prince George's County. It’s in much better shape that the last times I visited a few years ago. The elevators worked, the floors were shined, the emergency department was bustling, and the nursing facility’s social room appeared to be well-organized.
Boucree has worked in corporate management for the last 36 years -- “from space to parking meters.” But no health care or hospitals.
“I saw it as a challenge,” Boucree tells me. “A way of giving back.”
He declined to divulge his compensation to me but told the Council his annual salary was $210,000.
Now the D.C. Council is poised to vote on the Veritas contract extension. Health committee Chair Vince Gray would like to use UMC’s failures to beat up Bowser, who he might challenge for mayor next year. But Gray has to share the responsibility. Huron, the consultant before Veritas, came in under his watch.
Says Elissa Silverman: “Everyone’s guilty.”
“Besides,” Corbett Price says, "the doctors and nurses there now were there in the Gray administration.”
Veritas and UMC are in talks with the GW Medical Faulty Associates to take over its emergency room, which could be a move forward. But UMC’s efforts in the past to partner with Medstar failed.
The District has invested $316.8 million in capital and operating funds since 2007, according to the chief financial officer. It might make fiscal sense to close UMC, but not having a hospital east of the Anacostia River is not politically possible.
Bowser is developing a plan to build a new hospital on the St. Elizabeth’s campus for $330 million. Even that’s problematic, because it still leaves open the question of whether a successful hospital group like Johns Hopkins or Medstar would agree to operate a facility on the city’s east side.
“Even if the District serves up a brand-new facility,” one Council member says, “the hospital company is not assured of making the financial side work.”
Turnage says he sees the problem and a way forward.
“No big hospital with the preponderance of patients under Medicaid and Medicare can survive financially,” he says, “and that’s the situation right now.
“But,” he predicts, “there’s potential for success if there’s gentrification.”
In other words, a hospital for poor people can work, once more white people move into the neighborhood. Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t help D.C. residents who still rely on UMC -- and will for years go come.