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Gilbert Allen has been working in the transportation division of D.C. General Hospital for one year. Allen’s daily duties consist of driving sick and underprivileged D.C. residents to the hospital’s clinics and main campus at 19th Street and Massachusetts Avenue SE. He earns $25,000 a year.
In all, Allen’s employment at D.C. General is a pretty unremarkable thing, save for one detail: He is the son of Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen, who chairs the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services. In that capacity, she oversees the hospital’s city funding. Over the years, Sandy Allen has become known as the council’s biggest supporter of the city’s sole public hospital, using her position to save D.C. General from predators who would divert its $100 million in city payments to other civic priorities.
Gilbert Allen denies any link between his job and his mother’s power. “I applied for the job, and it was open,” he says, adding that he received “no help whatsoever” from Sandy Allen.
But Gilbert Allen’s hiring also marks another politically savvy move by John Fairman, CEO of the D.C. Health and Hospitals Public Benefit Corp. (PBC), the quasi-independent entity that runs D.C. General. While most folks have been watching Fairman and city politicians debate the intricacies of health-care finance, the CEO has spent his five years at the hospital quietly assembling a political machine that has all but guaranteed the outcome of that debate: Plenty of money for the hospital, with few strings attached.
Lots of other well-connected people have come on board at the PBC lately. Let’s just say you’re a big shot in D.C. and you have a colleague who needs a job. Perhaps the colleague has been disgraced; perhaps he’s looking for a new challenge and a nice pay raise. Either way, Fairman is your guy. Here’s at least a partial accounting:
* Fairman last year hired Dee Hunter, a former aide to Allen, as his chief of staff at a salary of $95,600. Hunter left for the PBC after embarrassing Allen by getting arrested for allegedly kicking a female colleague.
* Fairman this year hired Denise Reed, a former aide to Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, as a public relations assistant at a salary of $73,500. One of three east-of-the-river councilmembers, Chavous represents thousands of public-assistance recipients who depend on the city’s social safety net. The councilmember has repeatedly faced down those who would undermine D.C. General.
* Fairman this winter hired Jeff Beeler, an acquaintance of At-Large Councilmember David Catania, to an $81,600 position in “support services.” According to an informed source, Catania “passed Beeler’s resume around” to various D.C. government outposts. (Catania was unavailable for comment; Beeler did not return a call from LL.) Fairman says he knew of Beeler’s link to Catania, but insists it played no role in his hiring decision. Whatever his role in Beeler’s employment, Catania is a convenient ally for Fairman. He sits on the council’s Committee on Human Services, has cultivated a loyal following in the District’s poor neighborhoods, and has fashioned an unbreakable alliance with Allen.
* Fairman in 1997 elevated Dorie Ladner Churnet, who worked as an emergency room social worker for 21 years, to a social outreach job in the executive office at a salary of $78,000. At that time, Churnet’s sister, Joyce Ladner, served on the control board.
* Fairman recently hired Harry Thomas Jr., son of the late former Ward 5 councilmember, to a $95,600 public relations position. To judge from the May 2 Democratic party elections, Thomas may be the most popular community-level politician in the District. In the race for an at-large seat on the Democratic State Committee, Thomas beat a field of 10 challengers and pulled more votes than all but two candidates—Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis and Democratic National Committeewoman Barbara Lett Simmons, who faced no opposition—in other Democratic races.
Fairman denies all allegations of political patronage: “It’s really just a bunch of foolishness. All across this small town, you will find people from all walks….Not a single person has raised a question about competence, qualifications, and the right fit.”
Nevertheless, Fairman’s full-employment policy for friends of councilmembers adds context to the pro-PBC rally inside the D.C. General auditorium that made headlines last year. At issue was an aggressive plan pushed by Williams to expand Medicaid benefits to 80,000 poor, uninsured D.C. residents. In the spirit of “putting people before institutions,” Williams proposed funding the health-care benefits by slashing the District’s annual $32 million subsidy to D.C. General.
And which councilmembers, do you suppose, showed up for the May 1999 rally to save the hospital’s budgetary lifeline and torpedo the mayor’s plan? Allen, Catania, and Chavous. The councilmembers repeated all the arguments used over the years to prop up D.C. General in spite of its shoddy performance, dwindling clientele, and outdated facilities. “Who’s going to take care of our folks? Do we want quality health care?” asked Chavous. “If that’s what we want, then let’s fund it.”
If this kind of machine-building strikes you as anachronistic, you’re right. In 1998, retiring Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s electoral juggernaut was replaced by Anthony A. Williams’ band of technocrats. Back-slapping, pothole-fixing political stalwarts like Ward 5’s Harry Thomas, meanwhile, found themselves ousted in favor of the good-government scolds who now dominate the D.C. Council.
But if old-fashioned machine politics in D.C. is on life support, perhaps it’s fitting that the one place it continues to thrive is in the hospital. And even though he’s not an elected official, Fairman has deployed tactics that would make a Richard J. Daley-style urban machinist proud: hiring friends of influential people, savaging anyone who would interrupt his funding, and generally making sure that his dysfunctional hospital can bounce from crisis to crisis without ever having to justify its massive subsidies.
He’ll need every bit of that political muscle to fight through the hospital’s current straits. In an April meeting of the D.C. financial control board, now-departed Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt revealed that routine requests for big sums of cash were coming from the PBC. The bills, explained Holt, didn’t correspond to any services delivered to the District. Nor were they subsidies approved in the city’s budget. “The hospital was just looking for cash to pay a bill or something,” says a source who attended the meeting.
And with that, another D.C. General financial crisis was off and running—the by-now-familiar charade in which city officials weigh the value of the city’s only public hospital against the amount of money needed to keep it afloat. Right now, that magic number is $65 million—the amount that the city has lent the hospital over the past three years. “I do know that they are dipping into the city’s checkbook, and that’s problematic,” says D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp. Fairman and his top aides, of course, claim that the $65 million figure is inflated. Once the hospital collects its outstanding bills, they say, the number will shrink to a manageable $20 million.
Last week, in the wake of the revelations, Fairman, Williams, control board Chair Alice Rivlin, and Cropp established a “collaborative” to nurse the ailing institution back to financial health. The collaborative will install an interim chief financial officer and chief operating officer at the PBC. “I don’t think that there have been good numbers coming out of the PBC,” says Ivan C. A. Walks, the city’s health director.
Fairman’s political muscle will likely help avert too much scrutiny this time, too. The collaborative’s bean counters will follow in the footsteps of previous sleuths such as House D.C. appropriations subcommittee Chair Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and accountants from the U.S. General Accounting Office. History should prepare the platoon of auditors for what they’ll encounter in the process. In two of the past three years, city-hired auditors from the consulting firm KPMG Peat Marwick found themselves unable to substantiate D.C. General’s revenue claims.
The crush of auditors, in fact, has signaled the failure of the city’s experiment with the PBC. Created in 1996 by an act of the council, the PBC was supposed to end the politicization of public health in the District and let experts make the best decisions on how to care for the city’s poorest residents. By forcing Fairman to report directly to the PBC’s board of directors, the thinking went, the new construct would insulate the hospital from the whims and friends of downtown politicos.
But no matter whom Fairman officially reports to, the council still votes on D.C. General’s subsidies. And in being nice to councilmembers’ friends, Fairman helps to keep those subsidies generous.
The one thing those subsidies haven’t done, of course, is make citizens any more eager to visit the crumbling hospital. According to health department figures, better than 90 percent of D.C. Medicaid and 97 percent of Medicare patients pass up D.C. General and check into private hospitals. Two-thirds of the District’s 80,000 uninsured residents make the same choice. Howard University Hospital, Greater Southeast Hospital, George Washington University Hospital, Georgetown University Hospital, Providence Hospital, Children’s Hospital—those are the places, to answer Chavous’ query, that are already taking care of our folks.
And council defenders of D.C. General appear not to have noticed that Fairman’s PBC has also failed to chip away at the crisis in primary care in D.C.’s poor neighborhoods. Too often, uninsured residents rely on emergency rooms as their sole treatment providers. With its nine community health clinics, the PBC set out to bring doctors face to face with underserved patients before they dialed 911. It hasn’t worked. In 1997, for instance, the PBC fielded 12,465 uninsured patients in its emergency room; the tally rose to 21,499 in 1998. During the same period, clinic visits dropped from 49,612 to 37,018.
So much for health-care policy. Another reason councilmembers defend the hospital subsidies is that cutbacks could cost jobs. But Fairman hasn’t excelled at keeping the rank and file as happy as he keeps the politicians. “Fairman’s name should be at the top of the [reduction in force] list,” said picketer Loretta Owens, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1033, one of a paltry 10 union members at a May 26 protest against layoffs proposed by Fairman. “He has grossly mismanaged the funds of this institution while patients suffer, and the workers haven’t received a raise in I don’t know how long.” (Actually, it’s been around eight years.)
Most of Owens’ fellow labor leaders, however, haven’t been so enthusiastic. And one explanation may be that Fairman has played the same trick with unions that he has with the council. With very flexible hiring authority and little oversight from downtown, Fairman has co-opted a good chunk of the hospital labor front. Here’s the lineup:
* Fairman hired Roscoe Ridley, former president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 631, as his labor relations manager at a salary of $73,500.
* Fairman hired Joe Smith, former executive vice president of AFGE Local 631, as facilities maintenance coordinator at a salary of $51,000.
* Fairman hired Candace Mitchell, who formerly worked at the Doctors’ Council, as a supervisory dental officer at a salary of $123,100.
* Fairman hired Janice Vailes, former president of AFSCME Local 1033, to a financial staff position at a salary of $44,300.
* Fairman hired Toni Sawyers, former president of AFSCME Local 2097, to a position in the hospital’s accounting department at a salary of $37,000.
When asked about his affinity for union bosses, Fairman replies, “Should I be forbidden to hire labor officials?”
“You don’t buy people,” says Owens. “That should never happen.”
In the District, it always does. CP
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