Lost Hospital — DC General Hospital, Washington, DC

The Washington Infirmary was the first public hospital established in 1806. The facility moved its location in 1846 (known as the Washington Asylum at the time).

The hospital housed the city’s indigent patients, as well as serving as a work house for convicted criminals (for minor crimes).

Over the years DC General Hospital was a smallpox hospital, a quarantine station, a disinfection plant, and crematory. In 1922, Gallinger Municipal Hospital was built at the location, and in 1953 officially changed its name to District of Columbia General Hospital.

DC General Hospital closed in May 2001 after serving the community for almost two hundred years. Although hospital inpatient services ended in 2001, the campus still offers a variety of services such as a Women’s Services Center, Detoxification Center, and Southeast Sexually Transmitted Diseases Clinic. The city Jail is located to the south of this historic health care facility.

Before DC General Hospital closed, those wishing to keep the hospital open made the following arguments against its closure:

  • The hospital was strategically located in the eastern half of the city, which was an area already feeling the impact of other hospital closings.
  • Closing the hospital would increase the risk of shortages in the city’s ability to deliver health care.
  • Closing the hospital would create even greater problems in the future, as it would deprive the city of having the right hospital in the right place.

When DC General Hospital closed, many questioned the future of public hospitals in cities across the United States.  A July 2001 article in Health Affairs offered the following:

Public general hospitals like Bellevue (in New York City), Philadelphia General Hospital, and Boston City Hospital were once staples of urban America. Bellevue remains active today, but Philadelphia General closed more than twenty years ago, and Boston City has melded into the quasi-private Boston Medical Center. The expense, complexities, and “marketization” of health care have combined to cause cities to consider alternatives to the public management of large medical centers. Protracted debate over the closing of D.C. General Hospital in the nation’s capital is the latest high-profile battle over a public hospital. Paul Offner, a former health care finance commissioner, writes of his skepticism about the public hospital as the best buy for local taxpayers—a position that seems to have influenced subsequent events in Washington. As the CEO of Denver Health and a thirty-year veteran of public hospitals, Patricia Gabow writes from a very different vantage point. Civic will and clinical commitment, she argues, are the key ingredients to making a public hospital work. Where they exist together, public institutions can be powerhouses of service, education, and research.

District officials closed DC General Hospital because they could no longer afford to keep it open. At the time this was, and continues to be, a common pattern across the country.  In the seven years before DC General Hospital closed, the number of facilities with emergency departments decreased by 15%.