After months of public debate and private negotiations, a state-of-the-art health care facility on St. Elizabeths East Campus in Southeast has been approved to open two years earlier than originally intended. The D.C. Council passed the East End Health Equity Amendment Act at the end of a grueling legislative session on Tuesday.
But health care professionals from United Medical Center (UMC) who spent much of Tuesday in the Wilson Building said the final bill all but eliminates any likelihood of workplace benefits, or even employment, at the East End Hospital, which Universal Health Systems will operate via George Washington (GW) Hospital.
“Some of our nurses have worked at United Medical Center for more than 40 years, through multiple managers that didn’t know how to run the hospital, to the point that they didn’t have bedsheets,” Wala Blegay, staff attorney for the DC Nurses Association, said moments after the D.C. Council approved the bill.
Before unanimously passing the bill on Tuesday, council members discussed, and approved amendments introduced by Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Elissa Silverman (I-At large) dealing with unionized workers and HU medical students.
The council approved an “amendment in the nature of a substitute” that Gray said replaced amendments introduced by Silverman and Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) on December 4 to protect UMC union worker rights and secure residency opportunities for HU medical students.
Instead of binding Universal to a current collective bargaining agreement, as outlined in Silverman’s amendment, UMC nurses and the city administrator meet monthly during the hiring process for the East End Hospital.
“I happen to be a union supporter,” Gray said. “It has caused me to look at what’s important like working with organized labor and the GW Hospital folks. It will take time to build a new hospital and that gives us time to legislate further.”
Gray’s amendment, approved in a vote, also eliminates a task force that would create an academic agreement between HU and Universal. Both parties will instead collaborate on a document to be sent to the D.C. Council early next year. Gray iterated that the hospital deal cannot move forward without an academic agreement.
Silverman’s amendment, also passed by the council, partially countered Gray’s reversals by requiring that hospital administrators hire the majority of UMC employees and that Universal must provide an explanation to those denied jobs.
It also establishes a neutrality agreement to protect nurses who wanted to organize at the East End Hospital. Those stipulations didn’t please health care workers who lamented losing what had galvanized their efforts during contract negotiations.
“The council failed to see that nurses would maintain seniority, benefits, training and other things,” Blegay said. “From what we heard, Universal Healthcare wouldn’t entertain successorship to make sure people got the same job and training. This is a sad day for labor.”
In September, the Bowser administration’s announcement about an east end hospital prompted questions from Gray about a 2023 proposed opening that later inspired his introduction of a bill to open a health care facility several years earlier.
On Tuesday, the D.C. Council approved the East End Health Equity Act 10-2-1. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Councilman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) voted against the bill because of the removal of a certificate-of-need process to determine how the hospital would serve the community.
Councilwoman Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) was absent.
Evans, whose jurisdiction includes GW Hospital, has railed against a provision of the bill adding a tower to the facility. Last month, he joined Silverman in protests with unionized health care workers. Minutes before the council approved Gray’s request to delay the final vote on the East End Health Equity Amendment Act on Tuesday, Evans suggested the council postpone the vote until the New Year.
In the days leading up to the D.C. Council’s final vote on the East End Health Equity Act, HU medical students and Southeast residents engaged in dialogue at a Town Hall at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast.
Philise Williams, a fourth-year medical student at HU College of Medicine, said what she heard on Sunday brought her to a conclusion similar to that of Evans.
“Residents are open to slowing down the process and getting the hospital they’re owed the first time around,” Williams said. “I think that’s important for us to consider as the direction we should be moving in. Patients are interested in getting the physicians and specialties they need. We should take a cue from them.”