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Health Care Agendas Leave Patients Out

Nine o’clock in the morning in the emergency room at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance, and the lame, fevered, hacking masses wait for their names to be called on the loudspeaker.

“Sir, it is a minimum five-hour wait to see a doctor,” an attendant tells an exasperated man who feebly protests the delay.

In the crowd of two dozen patients, a young man sits near me, crutches at his side, an ankle in a cast propped up on a chair.

He says he was unaware the hospital could be shut down soon, ostensibly to save the collapsing L.A. County health system.

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“So you broke your leg?” I ask.

“No,” says Sedric Solomon, 22. “I got shot.”

“You got shot before or after you got the cast?”

Solomon -- a construction worker with no health insurance, like half the people here -- tells the story:

He goes to buy some milk at a shop near Florence Avenue and Normandie, and walks out into a blazing gun battle. He starts running, and goes down from a bullet that goes in one side of his calf and out the other, breaking a bone.

“I went to MLK,” Solomon says of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, another overburdened county hospital. “It took three hours before they saw me, then it took another six for them to do this. After that I just got up and left. If it’s going to hurt, it can hurt at home.”

It hurt too much, though. This time Solomon figured he’d try Harbor-UCLA, and see if they could look at his gunshot wound in under three hours.

The clock is ticking. For Solomon, and for the hospital, which shuttles chairs from one unit to another each day, because there aren’t enough to go around.

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I look around the room, which is thick with discomfort, and the whole scene is an indictment of American health care.

About 250 people a day walk into Harbor-UCLA for emergency or urgent health care. But many of them -- Sedric Solomon and his bullet hole excluded -- really have no business being here. They should be at a doctor’s office, getting the kind of treatment that keeps them from ending up at the hospital.

But in many cases they have no doctors, no insurance, and nowhere else to go but to this catch basin.

Whom to blame?

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You can start with federal officials, who dropped the ball on health care reform and turned the business of medicine over to insurance executives and accountants. You can point a finger at state and local officials too, who are pros when it comes to blaming everything on the feds, but not so sharp when it comes to actually doing something.

And you can always blame politics.

Bickering L.A. County supervisors, who have already shuttered 11 clinics, could vote as early as Tuesday to kill the lights at Harbor-UCLA and Olive View-UCLA Medical Centers because of a huge projected budget deficit.

Late last week, it looked as if the vote might be postponed. Some folks argued that the timing of the vote, and perhaps even the threat of hospital closures, was designed to draw support for Measure B, which would raise $175 million a year to keep the county’s trauma centers in business.

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Look, we know the game. It’s no surprise that everyone in this thing, from politicians, to doctors, to nurses unions, to pharmaceutical companies, to hospitals, to county health care administrators, to insurance agents, has an agenda.

But the patient is barely on anyone’s radar screen, and often gets stiffed in the end. Particularly the poor, and the growing legions of those with jobs but no insurance.

“About 40 to 50% of the people who come through the door have nothing in the way of insurance, nada,” Harbor-UCLA medical director Dr. Gail Anderson Jr. tells me in the wings of the emergency room of a teaching hospital he is eminently proud of, given its mission of turning away no one.

With county clinics already closed, the nearest hospitals wouldn’t be able to handle the increased load caused by a Harbor-UCLA shutdown, Anderson says.

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And it’s not just a concern for patients from the Harbor area, he adds. If you happen to have a heart attack on the San Diego Freeway, this is the only full-service trauma center between LAX and the Orange County line, so say a prayer.

Measure B will help. But it’s a Band-Aid, not a cure, and as the population continues to explode, we’ll need a Measure B-Plus.

One more obvious long-term solution, here and nationwide, is universal health care.

“I’m amazed that neither party has made it a priority,” Anderson says.

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I wish I could say the same.

In the emergency walk-in center, Sedric Solomon has finally been called to have his bullet hole looked at. Celia Huerta, 52, a diabetic from Compton, is waiting to be seen for arthritis.

Like Solomon, she went to MLK last time and it took hours. She says they told her she might be better off at Harbor-UCLA.

“They said I’d wait, though. They said I should bring breakfast, lunch and dinner with me.”

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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com


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