The New York City medical examiner selected to be Los Angeles County's new coroner has failed the test for a state medical license and must pass the exam before the end of the year or lose the $150,000-a-year job, officials said Friday.
County officials, who selected Dr. Yong-Myun Rho in March after their first choice turned down the job, said they do not consider the failing grade a reflection of Rho's competence as a forensic pathologist.
"We weren't terribly surprised," said Richard B. Dixon, the county's chief administrative officer. "It is fairly common for people not to pass the first time, especially people who are not fresh out of medical school."
"This is a man who has been a practicing pathologist for over 30 years, and now suddenly has to go back and take a general medical examination," said Regine Payne, a management analyst in the chief administrative office.
Rho passed the oral interview but received a grade of 66 on the written exam, nine points short of a passing grade. He fared worst on obstetrics and pediatrics questions, Dixon said. "It certainly is not, in my view, a reflection of his qualifications as a chief medical examiner if he is not a great pediatrician or obstetrician," Dixon said.
That assessment was shared by the former Los Angeles County coroner, Dr. Ronald Kornblum. After years of specializing in pathology, "I'm not sure I could pass" the test, Kornblum said.
According to the California Medical Board, only about half of the people who took the same test as Rho passed in June.
Rho, who has quit his job as deputy chief medical examiner supervising the borough of Queens, could not be reached for comment. The county's first choice for coroner, Dr. Joshua Perper, coroner of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, turned down the job because of Los Angeles' high housing costs.
Rho, 61, received his medical degree in 1955 from Seoul National University. He has taught pathology at Cornell University Medical College and New York University School of Medicine.
Rho has two more chances to pass the test. If he fails to get his license, the board is expected to appoint J. Lawrence Cogan, who is Los Angeles County's acting coroner.
"I'm not happy," Supervisor Ed Edelman said. But he added, "I don't think we're ready to pull the plug on this fellow."
Supervisor Deane Dana said, "I would hate to have to go back to engineering school and take a test in calculus after having been away from it for 30 years. It's very difficult." He added that the supervisors were unaware that Rho would have to take a test, but doubted that it would have influenced their decision to hire him.
The Los Angeles County coroner's office, second largest in the nation, investigated 18,261 deaths, including 1,962 homicides, last year.
The office was once run by Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi, the self-styled "coroner to the stars," who was accused of poor management and lost the job. Kornblum resigned last year after a critical audit showed a lack of management, failure to maintain sanitary standards and inadequate protection of personal property.
Because of problems in the office, the supervisors split management of the coroner's office last year between a pathologist and professional manager.