City Desk

Shutdown Could Force One D.C. Medical Provider to Stop Serving Low-Income Patients


Maria Gomez

Mary's Center, a federally qualified health center with two full-service locations in D.C., serves more than 30,000 patients in the District—about half of whom are enrolled in Medicaid or D.C. Healthcare Alliance, a local public health insurance program.

A week into the federal government shutdown, the center is struggling to figure out how to keep serving these 15,000 primarily low-income patients while still paying its 415 employees. (Mary's Center also has two facilities in Maryland that serve an additional 10,000 patients.) So far, they haven't had to turn down any patients who needed care.

Last week, Wayne Turnage, director of D.C.'s Department of Health Care Finance, sent a letter to affected health providers explaining that because DHCF "cannot access the local funds in the District's budget or draw down federal Medicaid dollars to pay providers," the department would immediately suspend all Medicaid and similar payments until the government shutdown ends.

Mary's Center was supposed to have gotten $585,000 from sources like DHCF and the D.C. Department of Health on Oct. 1 as payment for services the center rendered in previous months, says Maria Gomez, president and CEO of the organization. But thanks to the shutdown, it never did.

The center—the second-largest medical provider for low-income patients in the city behind Unity Health Care—has opted to stay open and continue providing services during the shutdown even though it can't be paid until Congress appropriates funding for the District agencies that will, in turn, pay for care. The clinic is banking on the government retroactively paying it once it reopens for services provided during the shutdown. But that's far from guaranteed.

Gomez says the center's next pay period is Oct. 18, and if the government is still closed by that time, Mary's Center will not be able to pay its employees.

"We will have depleted all of our resources if the government doesn't open by Oct. 18," Gomez says. "It's a mess."

Mary's Center is currently trying to determine what services are essential for its patients and deciding whether it will furlough some employees. It's in talks with a bank to secure a bigger loan, according to Gomez.

And the effects of the shutdown go even further then just the government money for Mary's Center. Most of the center's patients are low-income, working hourly wage jobs as custodians and restaurant workers. That means the shutdown is affecting many patients' paychecks, as many federal facilities are shuttered and furloughed government workers aren't paying for their typical services, like lunch or dry cleaning, during the workday. So Gomez says Mary's Center has seen an increase in people seeking mental health services. Many patients also have less money to pay for the care they need, and the center has less cash to help them out.

"I just don't understand how Congress can go to work everyday know that they are going to get a paycheck," she says.

Mayor Vince Gray's spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, says there's not much the local government can do to help.

"We can't fill every gap for the federal government," he says. "It's absolutely unconscionable that this is happening, and people should be up and arms... It's absurd this is happening to these immensely important organizations."

People wishing to assist the center can make a donation here.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post initially misspelled the acronym for the Department of Health Care Financing.

Photo courtesy Mary's Center

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  • Typical DC BS

    Guess the DC government didn't prioritize too well when they declared everybody "essential".

  • Jacqueline Mallet-Cedeno

    I trust in President Obama to make the right choices for Americans. I trust that this nation will forge right through these bitter days and come to a resolution soon. Yet if the economic ripple effect of this standoff can be mitigated by keeping the DC budget up and running and if 30,000 patients can continue receiving healthcare in the process, what is there left to consider? Please remember this: without health we have nothing.

  • Pingback: ‘Severely negative consequences’ at hand?

  • Mike Madden

    @ Typical DC BS:

    This has nothing to do with the D.C. government's declaration of who is or isn't essential. They have no access to Medicaid funds right now.

  • wtf

    The agency is called "DHCF" not "DCHF"

  • Typical DC BS

    @Mike Madden: Sorry, DC chose to spend "their" rainy day funds on "non-essential" employees. They could have easily shifted the money to keep up Medicaid payments. What say you to that?

  • Adrienne G. Collier MD

    Many may be under the assumption that the government shutdown only affects federal employees and contractors. That is far from the truth. Everyday Americans are affected in great and small ways each day that the shutdown continues. From families who depend on WIC and Head Start, to the elderly who depend on Meals on Wheels, to school children whose trips to DC have been cancelled, to physicians trying to work hard to provide care to the under-served, to families of veterans who are unable to receive death benefits even after their loved ones have made the ultimate sacrifice. We have never before experienced a government shutdown during a time of war. It is disgraceful that some members of Congress are holding the American people hostage to their political games. It is disgraceful that we, the people, are being told this shutdown is due to the fact that some members of Congress want to defund the ACA. Let us be reminded the ACA was passed as law, President Obama was re-elected, and the US Supreme Court upheld the ACA. It is disgraceful that Congress is still being paid while millions of American workers are not due to furloughs. It is disgraceful that the Speaker of the House doesn't have the courage to bring a clean CR to the floor for a vote. I can only hope that compromise and common sense will prevail over politics because the American people are suffering.

  • Mike Madden

    @ Typical DC BS:

    The Medicaid payments alone, which are typically paid by the feds, would have accounted for more than half of the rainy day fund, which is covering operations usually paid for by D.C.'s locally raised tax and fee revenue. So you're basically saying the city should have paid for federal Medicaid obligations instead of picking up trash and keeping libraries open. Nice choice the GOP is giving us.

  • DC Quilter

    Well said Dr. Collier. We should be demonstrating all across this country. I find that the citizenship of this country has become very complacent over the years. Everyone suffers because of the shutdown and we don't know what the consequences will be. It's disgraceful.