Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen gives Ivan C.A. Walks a dose of the silent treatment.
On Oct. 24, in the midst of the anthrax crisis, D.C. Department of Health Director Ivan C.A. Walks told Nightline’s John Donvan that his mother phones every day, reminding him, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper.”
Apparently, Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen went to sleep early that evening.
Allen deployed the legislative-branch equivalent of a B-2 stealth bomber on Monday, when Walks appeared before a Committee on Human Services public oversight hearing. In their opening statements, At-Large Councilmember David Catania and Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous lathered up the soapbox speaking about the D.C. HealthCare Alliance, the District’s newly privatized health-care system for the indigent and uninsured.
Chavous argued that D.C. residents have suffered needlessly since the highly contentious closure of D.C. General Hospital. Catania harped on the various ways in which the Alliance delivers less health care for more money. Both men seemed focused on one culprit, now that the D.C. financial control board has vamoosed: Mayor Anthony A. Williams. “Where is the mayor?” Catania thundered at one point.
Allen, who chairs the committee, zeroed in on another target. After indulging in an hour of public testimony, the chair abruptly altered the agenda and called Department of Health officials and the partners in the new Alliance system to the witness table. Walks and his entourage approached, along with Alliance representatives from Greater Southeast Community Hospital, D.C. Chartered Health Plan, Children’s National Medical Center, and Unity Health Care. The crowd took several minutes to assemble.
The chair deviated from her usual exchange of pleasantries, waving two bulky three-ring binders before the standing-room-only audience. Her eyes locked on Walks. Allen explained that Catania had submitted 28 questions to the Department of Health regarding the Alliance on Nov. 15, requesting a response to his queries by Nov. 30. Allen said that she received her 400-page answer-filled binders on Sunday, Dec. 9, at 2 p.m.less than 24 hours before the Monday-morning hearing.
“They don’t really want us to know what’s going on. It’s a pattern with the Health Department,” Allen lectured the audience. “I’m taking this as an affront to the Committee on Human Services and to me personally.”
Allen knew that Walks had crammed, delivering the department’s homework at the last moment possible. She decided to make this oversight hearing one he would remember. “I’m outraged that you would even put me in that position with my colleagues,” Allen berated Walks. “As chair, I have taken the position that we will not hear from the Alliance and the Health Department today.”
For the first six months of its existence, members of the Alliance have had very little to say for themselves despite contractual obligations to release information. It’s not for a lack of overseers: The Department of Health’s Health Care Safety Net Administration directly monitors contract compliance, along with a mayorally appointed board and Allen’s council committee. In the weeks leading up to Monday’s oversight hearing, those involved in the city’s new health-care system pointed fingers at each other about who was responsible for the dearth of information.
Allen aimed directly at Walks. She informed those in attendance that the committee would reconvene Monday, Dec. 17, after enough time had elapsed for the councilmembers to digest Walks’ voluminous response. She dismissed the witnesses, yet requested that Walks remain in the audience for the hearing’s entirety.
Alliance partners slowly got up to leave the witness table, but Walks remained seated. “Excuse me,” Walks blared into the microphone, smoke almost visibly coming out of his ears. “Excuse me, Ms. Allen.” Allen ignored his pleas. “Am I being ejected from the chamber?” Walks asked, with obvious shock. “You’re asking me to leave after I’ve been talked to like a child?”
Bull’s-eye! Allen had made her point. “Can someone call security?” she added, for emphasis.
Walks ejected himself from his chair, leaving a staffer to pick it up from the ground. The director then stormed toward the hallway, made an about-face, and returned to the council chamber. Several Health Department staffers had to physically restrain Walks, as he pointed his finger in the air and shouted at the councilmembers.
“Walks’ performance was something for the books,” Catania later commented. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Moments later, Walks stormed out again, heading down the hallway and into a lunchroom. Soon Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth, and Families Carolyn Graham raced down the hallway, as well as Williams’ press secretary, Tony Bullock. After a few hallway confabs, Walks re-emerged to meet the press.
Out of Allen’s purview, Walks’ cone of silence had been removed. “This Department of Health has produced a quality product,” Walks told the media assembled in the hallway. “The deputy mayor talked to me about how important it was to get our message out.”
That message seemed to involve even more showboating and finger-pointing. Walks winked a few times and smiled. “So the lawsuitwhat happened with that?” he goaded, referring to Catania and Chavous’ failed legal effort to invalidate the Alliance contract. “And what happened to all the deaths that were predicted?” CP