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Warnings Ignored, King/Drew Insider Says

Times Staff Writer

The recently suspended nursing director of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center said Friday that she had repeatedly warned top Los Angeles County health officials about nursing shortages and other deficiencies at the hospital, where three patients recently died under questionable circumstances.

Speaking publicly for the first time at a state Assembly hearing in Willowbrook on the troubled medical center, nursing director Rosemary Haggins said that her warnings had been ignored and that she had been unfairly singled out for discipline.

“I’ve been referred to as the sacrificial lamb” for the county Department of Health Services, said Haggins. She said she had written a series of letters and had had several meetings with county officials to detail her concerns.

Haggins was suspended without pay by the county in December after a government inspection stemming from the first two patient deaths found that the most basic expectations for nursing care were not being met at King/Drew. The patients, who were attached to cardiac monitors, died after nurses and doctors failed to respond promptly to their deteriorating conditions.

Haggins’ suspension is one in a series of emergency actions the county has taken at the medical center, which it owns.

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In addition to the problems found by government inspectors, a national accrediting body recently decided to close two doctor training programs there, including surgery. The head of the surgery program, Dr. Arthur Fleming, was placed on unpaid leave on Dec. 24.

Top county health officials have taken control of the hospital’s day-to-day operations.

The county health services director, Thomas Garthwaite, announced at Friday’s hearing that he had named Dr. Roger A. Peeks, medical director of Alameda County Medical Center, to fill the same position at King/Drew.

In interviews, county health officials said that Peeks not only had the right qualifications for the job, but that he also would be coming in with no connections to the institution or its history.

“He is completely fresh to the situation,” said Fred Leaf, the health department’s chief operating officer. “He doesn’t have any ties to this particular area. There’s a certain cadre of staff there who’ve been there for years and have used the same business techniques and clinical techniques for years. We needed a fresh face.”

Peeks, who will start in early February, served as Alameda County Medical Center’s interim chief executive officer for about eight months in 2000-01. The East Bay medical center also is a teaching institution and serves a largely poor and minority population, much like King/Drew.

Garthwaite said Peeks was not worried about tackling King/Drew’s myriad problems: “He has shown no fear so far.”

During the four-hour hearing, arranged by Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), assessments of the hospital and its affiliated medical school ranged from troubling to hopeful.

Dr. Harry E. Douglas, the interim president of the private Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, said he was determined to resolve the school’s accreditation problems, to improve its relationship with the hospital and county, and to “foster an environment of excellence” at Drew.

Douglas also said that King/Drew’s history of providing vital medical services to an underserved community was being imperiled by funding cutbacks.

“A continued erosion of King/Drew’s resource base is a prescription for failure,” Douglas said.

In recent weeks some county officials have raised the possibility of having UCLA become involved in physician training at King/Drew.

But Dr. Michael E. Drake, vice president of health affairs for the University of California system, suggested that UC might instead play an advisory role, emphasizing that “the difference between advising and supervising is something that I have to make perfectly clear.”

While several speakers attempted to draw distinctions between problems at Drew University and those at the hospital, Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) said that it was impossible to separate the future of one from the other.

“The distinctions you make between the hospital and the university are virtually lost,” Ridley-Thomas said. “This is one complex and both have to function efficiently and to help each other do that.”

Times staff writer Tracy Weber contributed to this report.


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