Who's to blame for King-Harbor?

Today, Hicks and Hutchinson identify the culprits in the hospital scandal. Previously they discussed changing civil service work rules and how closing the troubled hospital would affect the local community.

Supes, county health and the L.A. TimesBy Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The culprits in the King-Harbor bash are easy to finger. They are the County Board of Supervisors, the County Health Department and the Los Angeles Times. Let's start, Joe, with the supervisors. I don't include Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaithe Burke. She's waged a lonely, thankless, behind-the-scenes fight to keep King running.

The same can't be said for the other supervisors. They squandered millions of taxpayer dollars on wasteful studies and ineffectual private management consultants, and held perfunctory hearings that rehashed the same problems. All the while the supervisors bitterly complained about King's rotten management; a management that they approved and did little to hold accountable.

Next, Joe, is the L.A. County Health Department. They knew the problems at King, even documented them in an April 2005 memo. But health officials did not offer a plan and timetable to fix the very correctable problems, let alone aggressively prod the supervisors to take timely action.

Then there's the L.A. Times. In its hysterical, warpath obsession with toppling King, The Times took the reports from the feds and King management and quoted them selectively. The paper blew up with sensationalized headlines the most extreme cases of staff error without putting them in a context. It never cited the hundreds of quality-care cases at King, and it never put the King problems in the context of the dozens of other hospitals that have had adverse federal reports on them and have horrendous patient-loss records.

The textbook example of the paper's skewed coverage was the report by King's management on the improvements and corrective actions that it made to improve services at the hospital in the wake of the death of Ms. Rodriguez. On June 19th, I and other civil rights leaders publicly detailed those changes. The Times predictably ignored the press conference. That was in keeping with The Times' King MO, which is to splash criticisms by King detractors in bold and ignore or give a perfunctorily line or two to King's advocates. (Charles Ornstein, the chief Times hit man, even had the gall to call me and pretend that he welcomed my e-mails giving my factual views on King.) But those changes were the basis of the feds' giving King-Harbor a passing grade this past week.

The Times' greatest error of omission and commission is that it never, ever probed deeply into how the supervisors have chronically undermanaged, undermonitored and under-resourced King. Shame on it!

Joe, despite the drumbeat attacks on King by you and others, I and my compatriots Eddie Jones and Lita Herron never lost faith in King's capacity to maintain and improve services for the thousands who have nowhere else to go for medical care. We proudly stood our ground -- and the federal report that gave King-Harbor a passing grade on the improvements that it has made so far vindicated our dogged and mostly unsung efforts. It is the best rebuttal to you, Joe, and to The Times that got it so terribly wrong about King-Harbor.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book, "The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics," will be out in October.

Fingering the real villains?by Joe R. Hicks

I've known you long enough to know that, among other things (in fact, more than most people would imagine), we have in common the best interest of the Watts-Willowbrook community. These are neighborhoods that deserve the best hospital care that our tax dollars can deliver. This has not been, and is not currently, the case. Who is to blame for the dismal, dangerous state of service delivery at King-Harbor? I've addressed this in other exchanges between us; however I cannot join you in your blaming the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, the County Department of Public Health and the L.A. Times as the primary culprits in the sordid downhill race toward complete dysfunction at King-Harbor. I'll also address your allegation that Yvonne Braithwaite Burke is blameless in this affair.

Let me start by agreeing with you about the wasteful habits of the supervisors. As a fiscal conservative, I find political bodies like the Board of Supervisors to be, ahem, "overly generous" with the spending of our tax dollars (as well as the L.A. City Council ... not to mention our illustrious leaders in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.). So, what else is new? However, specific to your charge that they punted while the former King-Drew spiraled into dysfunction, yes, you are right. However, we must go the next step and inquire about why they acted in this manner regarding the growing rumors that King-Drew was performing like a Third World hospital.

I have argued that King-Drew, emerging as it did out of the ashes of the 1965 Watts Riots, has always functioned as a racially entitled institution. It was conceived as a black-run hospital, serving a primarily black client base. Administrators and staff were hired on this basis and, from the beginning, supervisors walked on eggshells when dealing with the performance of King-Drew. Understand, since the late 1970s rumors began circulating that something was wrong at the hospital -- this was in an era that proceeded the terms of some current supervisors. The die was cast very early in the "special" treatment of King-Drew.

In other words, while it's correct to finger the supervisors for a lack of courage in dealing with the thorny racial politics of King-Drew, they were correct to believe that they would undergo an onslaught of racism charges if they challenged the status quo at King-Drew. In 2004, when the hospital was finally placed under a microscope for its dangerous patient practices, certain members of the board were publicly called "racists" at a community meeting that in fact appeared to be more like a public lynching. To blame the supervisors as culprits, yet ignore the backward racial politics practiced by a host of civil rights "leaders," black community activists and black elected officials is just a tad disingenuous. These "leaders" stood at the barricades outside King-Drew Hospital and demanded that the Board of Supervisors "leave our hospital alone!" For years the supervisors had done exactly that.

The L.A. County Health Department also should come under its fair share of scrutiny and blame; however, it too was reacting to the same combination of bad racial politics and lack of fortitude that afflicted the Board of Supervisors for years. Additionally, many of the taxpayer-supported health professionals at the Health Department actually shared the ultraliberal belief that King deserved to operate under a "different" set of standards than did "regular" county-run hospitals.

Now, as for your claim that the L.A. Times had some sort of "hysterical, warpath obsession" with King hospital, perhaps you should give a listen to Chris Rock's hilarious rant about the propensity for some black leaders to blame all the ills of the black community on "THE MEDIA." Frankly, the L.A. Times was late on this story -- the L.A. Weekly had written a scathing series of stories on King-Drew long before The Times' series. Did you read the Weekly's stories? If so, did you view them also as "hysterical" or some sort of "obsession?" I have certainly been critical of The Times about its coverage of various stories for a variety of reasons, but regarding the paper's well researched series on the horrors of King-Drew, there was little reason to "sensationalize" the story. The facts of the place are horrific enough on their face. You've always been someone with your ear close to the ground on these sorts of things, so I can't imagine your not being aware of the stories coming out of King Hospital about long-standing neglect, incompetence and ... deaths. After all, "Killer King" stories didn't originate at the downtown Times building.

Finally, I do not share your support for Yvonne Braithwaite Burke's performance during this crisis. One of the reasons for the timid and often shameful attempts to deal with dysfunction at King-Harbor has been Burke's own lack of courage in the face of a crisis. The hospital exists in her district and the expectation of her colleagues on the board was that she would take the lead in the effort to reform the place. She did not. In fact, until the past few weeks, she has joined with the voices of racial victimization to argue for a "hands off" policy regarding King hospital. Leadership is about saying and doing what may often be unpopular -- Burke failed this minimal test of leadership.

I find it odd that you celebrate the efforts of yourself and a handful of others striving to stave off the closure (and reformation) of a hospital that has proved harmful to the very community you claim to advocate for. I believe this to be misguided. You'd do better to demand the best possible hospital care for the residents of Watts-Willowbook and hold all of the principal characters responsible for their disservice to the people.

Joe R. Hicks is vice president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations organization. He is currently writing "What's Race Got To Do With It: Building Bridges Across America's Racial Quicksand."

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