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The Silence of the Pols: Where’s the Outrage Over King/Drew?

Patt Morrison's e-mail: patt.morrison@latimes.com.

WWKD?

What Would King Do? That is, what would Martin Luther King Jr. do and say about the messes at the Los Angeles hospital that bears his name?

Would he -- how could he? -- stick up for King/Drew Medical Center, despite the shenanigans at a hospital whose dedicated doctors and nurses struggle to heal and cure while other employees slack off and double-dip for millions as patients die from neglect, ignorance and arrogance?

Or would King instead be summoning reporters to repeat a quote often ascribed to him: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane”?

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If King had held such a press conference last week, his would have been a lonely voice. Since the Times series began, I haven’t heard of a single indignant political leader staging a news conference to demand an end to the calamities at King/Drew. I double-checked with City News Service, which puts out the word on every major press conference in about a dozen area codes. No, the news service said, not one. Not a single county supervisor, not a single mayoral candidate, not one California politician.

Outrage? Sure, there was some outrage. It got poured into the ears of our reporters, who heard themselves called racist for daring to critique the hospital that supposedly symbolizes a strong and self-governing black Los Angeles.

Racist -- that’s so feeble. So ‘90s. So ... Republican. Last week Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat, lambasted Clarence Thomas as “an embarrassment to the Supreme Court,” and the best counterattack Republicans could manage was that Reid was “racist.” Know what? Thomas is an embarrassment and King/Drew is a mess.

Maybe there has been some progress: The usual King/Drew-or-die defenders haven’t been calling press conferences either. Maybe they’re embarrassed; maybe they understand they would look callous sticking up for the incompetence that turned patients into names on gravestones.

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Until the Times series, the hospital’s defenders sounded like dwellers in a magical universe of denial. Last year, when The Times asked the dean of the King/Drew medical school about risks to its accreditation, she retorted, “You just keep rehashing all the negative items.” (That line could have come straight out of another entrenched power structure, the Bush White House: You just keep talking about the 1,000-plus dead U.S. troops. What about the 149,000 who haven’t been killed?)

“Negative items” are symptoms. An evidently fit doctor at King/Drew waits by his car each morning until a woman presumably being paid to do this comes out to help him carry his stuff into the hospital -- that’s a symptom. More than 120 employees file “I’ve fallen off my chair” claims costing the hospital more than $3 million -- that’s a symptom. The King/Drew budget shells out $20 million for malpractice claims, $34 million for worker’s comp -- that’s more than 50 million symptoms. Diagnosis: screwed up.

Connie Rice, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney, thinks King/Drew inhabits a “culture of aggressive incompetence that’s been allowed to fester.” Well-intentioned critics and whistle-blowers don’t get thanked; they get shunned.

Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally has been in California politics long enough to have helped to give birth to King/Drew, a hospital he has called “the most symbolic and substantive institution in the black community.”

What does it symbolize now? That it’s all right if professional standards are lower for a symbol than for a hospital whose only mission is saving patients? That King/Drew can deliver worse care at higher costs than other county hospitals as long as it’s symbolic? The message I take away is that saving the hospital and its jobs matters more than saving the patients whose lives depend on it.

One month after King was assassinated, his widow sent a telegram to Supervisor Kenneth Hahn about “the fine new hospital to be named for my late husband.... It is of great importance that adequate health facilities be provided for the black community.” It still is.

Hundreds of furious people rolled out for a hearing last month about King/Drew’s trauma center. “Save King/Drew!” they chanted. “Save King/Drew!”

WWKD? At that meeting I think he would have led a different chant: “Fix King/Drew! Fix King/Drew!”

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