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Staff Shortages Severely Hampering County Health Services, Board Told

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The unexpected departure of hundreds of Los Angeles county health workers has wreaked havoc on the county’s fragile health care network, practically shutting down all non-emergency surgeries and basic care at some health clinics, county officials said Tuesday.

Beleaguered county health care officials told the Board of Supervisors that they desperately need to rehire almost 400 health care workers as soon as possible to shore up the thinning ranks of trauma nurses and other specially trained employees.

Earlier this week, county officials revealed that the layoffs of 2,700 workers and privatization of half a dozen clinics have scared off hundreds of health workers, doubling the usual rate of attrition in recent months. In the last two months, about 800 health care workers voluntarily quit. At the same time, so many Medi-Cal insured patients have stopped using public hospitals and clinics that the county has lost $24.3 million in much-needed revenue.

Assistant Health Services Director Walter Gray told the supervisors at their weekly meeting Tuesday that health officials are investigating the loss of both patients and health employees to determine the causes and potential solutions.

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Gray said he is concerned about the loss of so many employees, especially those highly trained for work in emergency and operating rooms and intensive care units. That loss, he said, has been compounded by the “significant” but unrelated problem of trying to match nurses to specific jobs during a process in which senior employees are transferred to other facilities to replace those laid off.

All those factors, Gray said, have prevented the county from providing some basic services that are critically needed.

“We are in a situation now where there are many services that we committed to the board that we would run [but] that we cannot run,” Gray said. “What we are doing now is just providing emergency [care].”

Board Chairwoman Gloria Molina said she suspects that many of the county’s 39 community health clinics aren’t providing the kind of primary care they are supposed to, and that her staff determined that one clinic in Pomona had stopped providing such care.

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“Since then we have found out Pomona is not the only clinic,” Molina said in an interview. “There might be many others.”

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An angry Molina lashed out at health officials for having so many problems dealing with downsizing the department, and also for not bringing the problems to the attention of the board sooner. “Either they are freaked out or they are in shock--maybe that’s why we’re getting this ineptness,” she said of the gaps in service.

Gray promised to fix the problems as quickly as possible but said he needs the extra employees to do so.

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At least one supervisor, Mike Antonovich, said he will only support hiring specially trained health employees because the department is still trying to downsize and cut costs. But supervisors moved on to other matters without giving health officials an answer.

Health czar Burt Margolin cautioned that many of the positions left vacant are too important to lose, falling in categories such as public health service and emergency care that are the county’s responsibility.


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