The Changing Landscape of Health Care in Wards 7 and 8

New Clinics Open as Construction Continues on Cedar Hill

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Dr. Crysta Chatman, medical director at Unity Medical’s Parkside Health Center, cares for a patient. Photo: Unity Health

This is the story of a new hospital and the way it could impact care east of the river.

For years, the health landscape in communities east of the Anacostia River has been undergirded by a series of government-funded clinics that provide primary care in underserved areas, a system anchored by the troubled United Medical Center (UMC). But change is on the horizon. UMC is soon to be replaced by the Cedar Hill Regional Medical Center, a full-service hospital at the St. Elizabeths East Campus.

At the Feb. 17 groundbreaking ceremony for the new hospital, Ward 8 Councilmember Vincent Gray (D) said he was thrilled with the progress of Cedar Hill. “But we are not just building a hospital,” he said. “We are building a comprehensive healthcare system to serve the needs of the community.”

What does the healthcare landscape east of the river look like today? And what changes can the Cedar Hill project bring to that landscape?

The Hospital
Cedar Hill is slated to open in late 2024. The $365 million project includes two urgent care centers, one for each ward, administered by United Health Care (UHC), which will run the hospital together with George Washington University.

The hospital will also have a verified trauma center with 24/7 general and orthopedic surgical availability, community-based ambulatory care and a full range of specialty services.

The hospital will also provide maternal care and newborn delivery services, with a Level 2 Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and a partnership with Children’s National Hospital. It will be the first time these services are available east of the river since December 2017, when the District shut down the obstetrics ward at UMC.

George Washington University Hospital CEO Kimberly Russo said that in the first year of operations alone the hospital is expected to serve over 40,000 in the emergency room, provide care for 5,000 in-patients, deliver more than 2,500 babies and give outpatient services to more than 9,000.

“The development of this comprehensive system will allow individuals to get the right care at the right time in the right location,” Russo said.

Community Clinics
Improved primary care is critical to strengthening that system, since studies have shown that access reduces avoidable hospital emergency room visits. Currently, much of the available primary care on the east side of DC is provided by community clinics, many funded by the District and the federal government. These include federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) such as the Elaine Ellis Center of Health, Community of Hope and seven separate Unity Health Clinics.

Founded in 1984 to provide healthcare to the homeless, Unity is now the largest primary health agency in the District, serving 60% of the District’s FQHC clients and offering services ranging from regular checkups to dentistry. Unity’s team approach assures that all areas of a patient’s health journey, from medical care to behavior services and social support, are working together to achieve health and wellness goals.

In May, ground was broken on the new Whitman Walker Max Robinson Clinic at St. Elizabeths, which will house comprehensive primary care and a broad spectrum of services from radiology and psychotherapy to dental and nutrition. It will also feature a pharmacy on the ground floor. It is the result of 10 years’ work to find a larger location than the current site at 2301 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.

Ground is broken on the new Whitman Walker Max Robinson Clinic at St. Elizabeths, July 2021. Photo: Whitman-Walker

While the Whitman Walker facility will be housed in the same complex as the Cedar Hill facility, the location of the new hospital was not part of the decision for Whitman Walker, said Abby Paige Fenton, executive director. The facilities have been in Southeast since 1993 and were simply looking for space to expand.

The new clinic will offer all the services currently available at “Max,” as Fenton calls it, “but on a scale that’s multiple.” The new clinic will be able to serve triple the number of clients, up to 10,000 annually. It will have eight dental suites, 12 behavioral health suites and 60 consult rooms. It will also be home to over 60 research and multiple data studies.

The facilities are prioritizing respectful, welcoming care that treats the patient as a whole person, which has an important role in the overall healthcare system, Fenton said. “Good primary care helps people to stay out of emergency rooms,” Fenton said, “and that is important to us.”

New Services
Primary care is critical for residents in Wards 7 and 8. But, given that these residents have the highest levels of chronic disease in the District, including diabetes, hypertension and cancer, there is a need for specialty services.

UMC offers a wide variety of services, from obstetrics and infant delivery, surgery and dialysis to mammograms and diabetes care. The hospital emergency room has provided many with their basic medical care, but between accusations of mismanagement and the pandemic, the hospital faced a steep decline in patient visits over the last year, leading to a decline in revenue.

In December 2019, Unity partnered with Howard University Hospital and So Others May Eat (SOME) to offer co-located specialized care in high-risk maternal and fetal medicine, oncology, behavioral health and substance abuse treatment and counseling at the East of the River Health Center location (4414 Benning Rd. NE).

The opening of Cedar Hill will make a wide array of critical health and specialty services more accessible to residents, including trauma care, newborn deliveries and maternal health, orthopedic, cardiac and hypertension, cancer, kidney, rehabilitation, general surgery and mental health services.

Cedar Hill as Anchor
The new hospital is just the beginning, said Councilmember Gray. He hopes it will be the cornerstone for a whole new interconnected healthcare system on the east side of the city. “The creation of a comprehensive health system anchored by the hospital is one of the best ways that we can bring the kind of serves that people desperately need and deserve,” Gray said.

Gray noted that more professional medical offices are key to bringing services to Wards 7 and 8. In June, he moved emergency legislation authorizing the mayor to create a scholarship for residents to enter needed healthcare careers and to expand the loan repayment program for medical professionals in specialties such as ob-gyn and podiatry.

Concept designs for the new hospital at St. Elizabeths were submitted to the US Commission on Fine Arts on July 9, 2020. Image: Office of Councilmember Vincent Gray

Additional medical facilities are opening in the area. Edenbridge Health has signed a lease to open a PACE Center at Skyland Town Center, becoming the first healthcare facility to locate at the Southeast Washington development. PACE, which stands for Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, supports adults while they age in place at home. The location will have nearly 15,000 square feet and is expected to open this fall. Skyland includes 120,000 square feet ready to be occupied by medical specialty offices.

After a nearly two-year delay, the first urgent care clinic, MBI Urgent Care, officially opened on March 31, 2022, at 5140 Nanny Burroughs Ave. NE. Open 24 hours, seven days a week (202-984-7310, www.mbiucdc.com) it offers treatment with or without an appointment and accepts Medicaid.

And in October 2021, Bread for the City opened the Michelle Obama Southeast Center of Bread for the City (1700 Good Hope Rd. SE). It is a 28,132-square-foot facility with a medical clinic, jobs center, client-choice food pantry and clothing store. Clients also have access to on-site legal and social services.

The new facility increases Bread for the City’s ability to serve up to 20,000 clients regardless of ability to pay or type of health insurance coverage. In addition to primary care, dental, vision and behavioral health, the clinic provides examinations, medications, lab tests and referrals to patients, regardless of their ability to pay.

“That’s who we are at Bread for the City: we think of the individuals and the whole community as multifaceted and we have everything in place to bring the right services and resources to this community,” said Dr. Randi Abramson, chief medical officer at Bread for the City, in a press release. “We want our community members to thrive and be the best person they can be.”

A Moment of Hope
The impact of the Cedar Hill hospital on the overall landscape of medical care in Wards 7 and 8 remains to be seen. But at the hospital groundbreaking, many saw it as a turning point for healthcare east of the river. “Let us recognize this moment of hope,” said GWU’s Russo. “I have no doubt that this hospital will be pivotal in changing and improving healthcare in our nation’s capital, and together we look forward to what is on the horizon.”