Planned closure of Providence Hospital services draws protests
DC residents, nurses, doctors, union activists and a city council member showed up to a recent community meeting to voice concerns about Providence Hospital’s plans to shut down acute care services to transition into a new model focused on outpatient services.
Many are calling for Ascension, the Catholic health system that oversees Providence, to fix problems instead of closing the hospital, which originated during the Civil War and relocated to its present site in the Northeast neighborhood of Michigan Park in 1956. Advocates say the move would create a “health care desert” for many residents in the eastern half of DC.
“It is the first step, but I think we’re able to put some pressure on Ascension and Providence Hospital to keep this hospital open,” said Corey Lanham, Mid-Atlantic collective bargaining director at National Nurses United, the group that organized the Sept. 13 meeting.
The effort came in advance of a planned DC Council hearing on Oct. 10 that will examine the DC Department of Health’s role in approving Providence’s plans as well as the closure’s impact on the District’s health care system.
At the union-led meeting, held at Plymouth Congregational Church, health care workers and union representatives spoke up about their experiences at Providence and what the public can do to help.
“This huge corporation of $22 billion in profit is going to come into your hospital and take out your acute services,” said Wanda Shelton-Martin, executive director of Metropolitan District 1199 DC of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. “Those are the services you use when you go to the emergency room. If you have to be admitted to a bed, all those technicians and nurses who service you? They will be gone.”
Ascension intends to end acute care services at the Ward 5 hospital by the end of the year, with plans to create a new “community-focused” model that focuses on “care coordination, telehealth/virtual care, primary and urgent care, home care, community-based behavioral health care, senior care and more,” according to a release issued this summer.
“We know that 15 percent of a person’s life is spent in actual healthcare, which means the remaining 85 percent is spent in other areas that either positively or negatively impact their overall well-being,” Keith Vander Kolk, Health System president and CEO, said in the release. “That is where the greatest opportunity to make meaningful change lies, and we must put our focus and energy on advancing a model of transformation that will serve the District in new and lasting ways.”
Providence — the longest continuously running hospital in the District — serves many low-income patients, people of color and the elderly, according to National Nurses United. Fifty percent of its patients are insured with Medicaid and another 30 percent use Medicare, according to the DC Department of Health.
One nurse said she works at Providence to serve the needs of these patients.
“I’ve never wanted to work anywhere else except for Providence Hospital,” said Aster Goitom, a nurse in the intensive care unit. “These are needy people, who have less access to many things.
“I could’ve gone to other places, but I never wanted to go,” Goitom added. “I want to stay in the IC unit and at Providence because of the community it serves.”
The decision to stop offering acute care services caught medical staff off guard, according to WAMU. Last month, board members of the hospital sent Ascension a resolution to rescind their approval of these changes, Washington City Paper reported. All but three of the board members received an email stating that they were fired. In a statement to the Washington Business Journal, Providence said the changes were a part of a reconfiguration “to advance its transformation in the community.”
The hospital primarily serves wards 4, 5 and 7 on the east side of DC. With its closure, Howard University Hospital, MedStar Washington Hospital Center and United Medical Center will be the closest options providing acute care services for many residents. City officials plan to replace United Medical Center — which last year shut down its obstetrics unit — with a new facility to be managed by George Washington University Hospital on the St. Elizabeths campus in Ward 8, but its opening is years away.
“If you look at a map of hospitals in DC, the east side of DC, with the closure of Providence, is a health care desert,” Lanham said. “People will be systematically denied health care on the east side, and that is a problem.”
Washington Hospital Center, in particular, already experiences heavy demand, said Shelton-Martin. “if you’ve ever been over there on a Saturday — God bless those workers over there, but they are working like they’re in a war zone,” she said.
This summer, a Washington Post report on Providence’s plans to open a “health village” noted the hospital closed its maternity ward last October and recorded $23 million in operating losses in 2016 and 2017.
On Aug. 30, Providence Health System released a statement emphasizing its continuing commitment to “serve all persons, especially those who are struggling the most.” The statement also pointed to data showing that the District has more than twice the national average of hospital beds.
The statement did little to ease worries about how the changes ahead would impact workers at Providence and community members who rely on their services.
Ward 5 DC Council member Kenyan McDuffie attended the later part of the Sept. 13 meeting, telling the crowd: “You are not in this fight by yourself — you are not in this fight alone.
“I stand with the folks who work at the hospital,” the council member said.
Lanham and his team handed out fliers and fact sheets with the message “Save Providence Hospital,” and urged attendees to call representatives, get active on social media, and sign a petition to save the hospital. Lanham also urged the public to attend the DC Council’s Health Committee hearing on Oct. 10 to apply more pressure on local government.
Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray scheduled the hearing as chair of the Health Committee. In a July 26 statement, he said he was troubled by Ascension’s plans and described Providence as “a hospital of choice” for many of his constituents.
“The closure puts further strain on Washington Hospital Center’s emergency room services and continues a disturbing trend over the last year, in which hospital services in the eastern quadrants of the District have continued to be scaled back,” he said. “The decision by Providence to eliminate these services exacerbates the maldistribution of beds and will further disadvantage people on the East End of the District.”
For some residents, like Aaron Phillips, who lives in Ward 8, the council’s upcoming hearing is a chance to keep fighting.
Phillips said he showed up for the Sept. 13 community meeting after signing in for his physical therapy at Providence and seeing a flier at the front desk. “Usually, I throw it out … but the receptionist told me it was today, so I made a point to come out,” he said.
“Everyone can benefit from Providence Hospital,” Phillips said. “Providence accepts all insurance — and not every hospital accepts all insurance, which would exclude certain people depending on their illness or ailment.”
This post has been updated to correct a reference to the hospital’s history. Providence Hospital’s current facility in Northeast DC opened in 1956.