Los Angeles County supervisors Wednesday questioned whether Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center should ditch the medical school that trains its doctors — or whether it could remain open at all.
Responding to three troubling deaths late last month at King/Drew, a majority of the five-member board signaled rising frustration with efforts to turn around the beleaguered county-owned hospital in Willowbrook, just south of Watts.
"The question now before the County of Los Angeles is, can this hospital survive?" Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Wednesday on "Talk of the City," a program on KPCC-FM (89.3). "And I can't give you a yes or no answer to that, which in and of itself says something."
Yaroslavsky said he and the other four supervisors spent hours discussing the recent deaths at King/Drew in a closed session Tuesday and were "very, very concerned about the pace of reform."
"If it's going to take forever," he said, "then maybe we need to revisit the first decision we made about how to approach this problem."
The county decided last fall to spend millions of dollars to hire a team of consultants to overhaul the hospital.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich filed a motion Wednesday that called for the county health department to consider severing its decades-long relationship with Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science and partner with another medical school such as UCLA, USC or Loma Linda.
Drew University is paid about $12 million by the county each year to train doctors to be specialists and to provide some clinical services. The county repeatedly has renewed its contract with Drew, most recently in September.
"Given the stakes involved, and recent patients deaths involving lapses in medical care it has become evident that this Board can no longer support a hospital that does not meet the community standard of care," the motion says.
Antonovich accused Drew University of being more concerned with renegotiating its contract than "fixing the medical school and resident oversight problems." The motion will be considered when supervisors meet Tuesday.
Drew University's interim President Harry Douglas said Wednesday that he was "just dumbfounded" by Antonovich's motion. Eleven of the hospital's 15 doctor-training programs recently have received favorable reviews from accreditors, he said.
"We thought we were proving ourselves as a capable and reliable partner," he said.
Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, director of the county Department of Health Services, criticized Drew University in an interview Wednesday — departing from his previous support for the school.
"There should be consequences and accountability for not supervising adequately," he said.
Even before Antonovich's motion, Drew University was under considerable pressure. The county notified the school this week that it would be penalized $21,000 for not complying with portions of its new contract, health officials said.
A third member of the board, Supervisor Don Knabe, said Wednesday that with the most recent deaths, he was reaching his limit. "I want to do everything I can to save the hospital, but we can't continue to deal with issues like this," he said. "Every time you turn around things appear to be getting better and then dramatic issues like this turn up."
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes King/Drew, said she did not support cutting ties with Drew University or closing the hospital.
"They have had some things that are wrong, that should be corrected and that must be corrected," Burke said, adding, "I believe you have to maintain a hospital there and do whatever it takes to provide for the care of people there."
The fifth member of the board, Supervisor Gloria Molina, declined to comment.
On Wednesday, The Times reported that over the course of four days late last month, three patients had died at King/Drew after what officials now believe were critical lapses in care.
A Los Angeles County coroner's report attributed the death of one of the patients, a 61-year-old woman, to complications from the placement of her breathing tube, which caused her lung to collapse. The woman's death on March 25 was ruled a medical accident by the coroner.
In that death and at least one other, county health department officials say it appears that doctor trainees did not receive appropriate oversight from more senior physicians, as required.
Since late 2003, King/Drew, which serves mostly poor black and Latino neighborhoods, repeatedly has been cited by regulators and accreditors for serious lapses in patient care. A five-part Times series in December detailed how errors and neglect by King/Drew's staff had repeatedly injured or killed patients over more than a decade, a pattern that went largely unstudied and unchecked.
In February, a national accrediting group took the rare step of pulling its seal of approval from the hospital because of problems identified in 2004.
But the problems continued even before the deaths last month. On Feb. 15, a patient undergoing a tracheotomy suffered neck burns when a cauterizing tool ignited oxygen in the operating room. Two days later, a surgical sponge was left in the abdomen of a shooting victim and wasn't discovered until several days later on an X-ray. (Last year, the hospital pledged to better track items used in surgery after a metal clamp was left in a patient.)
"I think everyone has really reached the height of frustration," Knabe said. "I'm not really sure, at least from my perspective, what the next step should be."