Whenever Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center is criticized, as it often is, the response from supporters is the same. They say Los Angeles County leaders never wanted King/Drew built in the first place — and have been trying to starve it ever since.
"You know damn well the county knows what we need," said "Sweet Alice" Harris, long revered for her charitable efforts in South Los Angeles' black and Latino neighborhoods. "My problem is: Why is it that they don't love the poor people and want to help them? We're the first to be cut and the last to be rewarded."
Amen to that, said Dr. Xylina Bean, who started at King/Drew in 1973, the year after it opened, and is now director of neonatology.
"We have a saying here which we all understand, 'The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,' and usually King hospital has always been on the taketh away list, OK?"
Spend any time at the county-run hospital near Watts and it's easy to reach the same conclusion: Patients linger unattended, walls are gouged with holes, mattresses are worn and stained, even ink cartridges are in short supply.
The numbers, however, tell a different story. Though widely believed, the notion that King/Drew is being shortchanged is false.
The medical center spent more per patient than 75% of the public and teaching hospitals in California, according to a 2002 state audit that looked at fiscal year 2000.
The difference is stark when King/Drew is measured against the three other general hospitals run by Los Angeles County.
It spent $492 more per patient daily than Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, $685 more than County-USC and $815 more than Harbor-UCLA in 2002-03, county figures show.
The hospital with the most comparable budget is Harbor-UCLA, a much bigger facility 10 miles away. Last year, Harbor-UCLA had nearly $372 million to work with, not much more than King/Drew's $342 million.
Harbor-UCLA, however, did far more with its money.
It treated 61% more people in its emergency room and admitted 91% more patients. And it performed certain complex procedures, such as open heart surgery and kidney transplants, that King/Drew did not — drawing in patients who were sicker and more expensive to care for.
King/Drew's problem is not the amount of money it gets but the way the money is squandered, according to audits, financial records, legal filings and dozens of interviews.
As at most hospitals, its greatest cost is employees. But King/Drew, with a staff of nearly 2,500, spends inordinate sums on people who do little or no work. The rest of the hospital — hardworking employees, patients and their families — often make do or do without.
Here are some examples:
In the last five years, King/Drew has spent nearly $34 million on employee injuries — 53% more than Harbor-UCLA and more than any of the University of California medical centers, some of which are double or triple King/Drew's size. Employees make claims for such things as damage to their "psyche," assaults by their colleagues and a variety of freak accidents, according to a Times review of workers' compensation claims.
Last year, King/Drew employees billed for 299,804 hours of overtime, costing the hospital nearly $9.9 million. That's 61% more than the sum spent by Harbor-UCLA, which has about 400 more workers. Fourteen King/Drew employees pulled in more than $50,000 each in overtime. At Harbor-UCLA, there was one.
Some employees habitually fail to show up, logging weeks, even months, of unexcused absences each year. And those who do come to work often don't do their jobs, causing one consultant in 2002 to remark that they had "retired in place." Others are distracted or impaired. County Civil Service Commission filings tell of staff members grabbing and clawing each other's necks; inspection reports tell of patients literally dying of neglect.