Congress must step up to fund the Howard University Hospital renovation
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Two miles north of the U.S. Capitol building, around the corner from the African American Civil War museum, sits the world’s oldest institution primarily dedicated to the training of Black medical professionals. This institution, in continuous operation for more than 150 years, is the 10th most competitive medical school in the nation. Half its graduates go on to treat patients in underserved communities across the country, and each year it trains over half of all new Black doctors in the U.S. But its future is in jeopardy. Without sufficient appropriations this year from Congress to rebuild the outdated Howard University Hospital, the Howard University College of Medicine may lose its academic training facility.

The origins of Howard University Hospital, which has served as the clinical residency site for the Howard University College of Medicine, are truly unique. They began in the 1860s when thousands of newly freed people came north and were placed by the federal “Freedman’s Bureau” in an encampment in the District of Columbia. To meet the medical needs of those in the camp, “Freedmen’s Hospital” was created by Congress. The camp was eventually closed; the hospital was moved in 1862 and then again in 1863, at which point it was officially chartered by Congress and given the name Freedmen’s Hospital.

Freedmen’s Hospital’s services expanded over the next 100 years, offering access to quality health services to the Black, mostly poor population of Washington, D.C., who were often denied services at other hospitals on account of their race. In the 1960s, Congress merged Freedmen’s Hospital with another federally-chartered institution also created by Congress in the 1860s — Howard University. In the early 1970s, Congress authorized the funds to build what would become Howard University Hospital. Today, the hospital and the Howard University School of Medicine are the centerpiece of an academic health complex comprised of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences, the College of Pharmacy and the College of Dentistry.

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Unfortunately, more than half a century later, the hospital is an unacceptably outdated structure. Less than half of the beds at that 50-year-old facility can even be used. Howard and its consortium partners, the nonprofit Adventist HealthCare, together with the District of Columbia, have come together to rebuild a new facility to continue as the academic medical center of the College of Medicine. Although the University is federally chartered deserving of full federal support, the consortium will provide half the project’s cost ($300 million) and is seeking federal funding for the other half of the project ($300 million).

A new facility would allow Howard to expand the size of its incoming medical school class and produce 2,000 new doctors in the first 10 years. A new facility would also allow similar increases at the dental, pharmacy and nursing/allied health schools to better meet the acute need for diverse health care professionals nationwide. This robust pipeline of diverse health care professionals serving in historically underserved communities is even more critical now as COVID-19 has shown the dire consequences of our growing health care disparities.

Work started on the project 18 months ago, but progress is threatened unless meaningful congressional funding is secured. Last year, Congress appropriated 2.3 percent of the needed federal share for the project. If another 60 percent of the federal share is not provided this year there is a risk that Howard may have to close the outdated hospital, which would both negatively impact patient care in the District of Columbia and cause Howard to lose its academic medical center that trains the nation’s diverse health care workforce.

Howard University Hospital runs like a thread through American history from the Civil War to today. It begins at a camp treating newly freed people, weaves between Reconstruction, Jim Crow and segregation. It is drawn forward by America’s first Black surgeon-in-charge (Dr. Alexander T. Augusta), first black and first female certified to practice medicine in Virginia (Dr. Sarah Garland Jones), and first black dean of a college of medicine (Dr. Numa Pompilius Garfield Adams). It is wrapped taut and tight around minority communities across the country by groundbreakers dispatched to every state by Howard University College of Medicine. These groundbreakers, who are the personification of health equity, carry with them that thread and make clear this is no ordinary hospital. Yet, here Congress stands today, holding in our hands this thread at risk of breaking. Not severed from its tether by a budget-cutting ax or sliced by a hostile amendment. This thread frayed from use and worn from good work, but that may snap from the force of congressional inaction. It is time to strengthen the thread.

Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Security forces under pressure to prevent repeat of Jan. 6 Overnight Health Care — Democrats face setback on drug pricing MORE serves as delegate to Congress from Washington, D.C.