Religious leaders joined community members in expressing concerns about the planned closure of Providence Hospital during a Nov. 2 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing.

“The thought of closing a Catholic hospital which provides screening, preventive care and treatment to the population of east Washington, D.C. is a scandal. If we use the Gospel and Catholic social teaching as measuring sticks, our Catholic tradition is clear that standing with marginalized and disenfranchised people is not an option – it is a mandate,” said Sister Anne-Louise Nadeau, a Notre Dame de Namur sister who serves as the director of programs for Pax Christi USA, a Catholic organization that promotes peace.

 “…We know and understand that circumstances dictate that some hard decisions need to be made,” Sister Nadeau said. “However, making decisions based on bottom line and profit margins is counter Gospel and growing a Catholic corporation on the backs of people they are committed to serving is unacceptable.”

The hearing took place a day after Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser signed legislation requiring any private acute-care hospital in the city to give the State Health Planning and Development Agency at least six months notice before closing those services. Previously, the requirement had been only 90 days.

This legislation was first passed by the D.C. Council on Oct. 16. Ascension, the Catholic health system that runs Providence, announced in July that it would be closing acute care services and then in September that it would close all services except for Carroll Manor and primary-care related services on Dec. 14.

Opponents of the hospital’s closure say that it would further exacerbate socioeconomic and racial disparities in the city, as 87 percent of the hospital’s patients are insured through either Medicare or Medicaid and 82 percent of the hospital’s patients are African-American.

At the hearing, Keith Vander Kolk, the president and CEO of the Baltimore-Washington Ministry Market for Ascension, offered some explanation of the organization’s decision to close the hospital.

The decision to close Providence “was not abrupt, but rather made after careful analysis about the District’s health care needs and the hospital’s sustainability,” Vander Kolk said, explaining that in March 2017, Providence began a process of determining how they could best continue to serve the community’s health care needs. In deciding to “reimagine Providence,” Vander Kolk said they took into consideration the needs reflected in the district’s Community Health Needs Assessment of 2016 and the D.C. Health System Plan, which included management and care coordination of chronic health conditions, addressing the needs of the aging population, and mental and behavioral health.

In addition to those needs, Vander Kolk said Providence faced serious quality issues and D.C. Health told them they would be required to take corrective action on deficiencies. He also noted that between 2010-2014, the rate of hospital stays and utilization in the District declined, and over the last six years, Providence experienced a 48 percent decline in patient volumes and a cumulative operating loss of $168 million.

“It became clear the best way to redeploy resources and better serve the community was to transition from hospital based services to primary behavioral and community based services,” said Vander Kolk. Ascension has committed to invest $30 million in their new vision for Providence.

“Our mission…has always been, ‘Following in Jesus’s footsteps, we are committed to serving all persons, especially those who are poor and struggling.’ That mission will never change,” said Vander Kolk. “But how we deliver on that mission will change, and needs to in order to be responsive to the needs of those we serve. We have a steadfast commitment to the populations we serve and we are not abandoning them. In fact, we are working to address their needs in new, meaningful and lasting ways.”

But Father Patrick Smith, the pastor St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, said he was concerned that the poor population the hospital serves will be left behind with the hospital’s closure. He noted that he is a third generation Washingtonian who grew up in Ward 8 of the city and has been a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington for more than 28 years, ministering almost exclusively in the African American community.

“I am here today because I am concerned that the children and families in the community that I have dedicated my life to serve will be put at risk if Providence Hospital closes,” he said. “…I am here because I believe the closure of Providence Hospital will only make the health care services for our most vulnerable populations less accessible to them.”

Furthermore, he said he was afraid that the actions of the Catholic hospital would give people the wrong impression about the teachings of the Church.

“I am here because I am afraid that people may get the impression that when we Catholics say ‘pro-life’ that we are not including black and brown babies and mothers of lower income families in our definition of life worth defending, protecting, serving and saving,” he said. “…I am afraid that when we as Catholics repeat the truth that ‘The Lord hears the cry of the poor,’ that that truth may fall on deaf ears if we close one of the only two hospitals on the east side of the District knowing that all but one of the seven other hospitals are concentrated in the wealthiest neighborhoods of the city,”

Father Smith also testified, “I am here today because Jesus said what we do to the least among us, we do to Him.” He said the hospital’s planned closure seemed to suggest a new Beatitude counter to the Gospel message: “I was sick and you offered me no health care. I was in need of medical attention and you closed down the hospital that provided me the best opportunity to be cared for.”