Built in response to the Watts riots, Martin Luther King Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center has a long and proud tradition as an institution run by and for African Americans. But with the hospital foundering, one of the region’s most powerful black leaders suggested Tuesday that it was time for colorblind stewardship at King/Drew.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes the county-run hospital, said administrators needed to be hired on the basis of their qualifications, not their race.
Burke added that she had taken political heat for the supervisors’ decision to send a predominantly white management team to temporarily take over the hospital in its time of crisis.
“My feeling is that we have to move beyond ethnicity and we have to address the problems at Martin Luther King in terms of attracting the best possible administrator, the best possible staff, the best possible doctors,” Burke said.
Her comments came during an unusually freewheeling supervisors’ meeting, during which members of the county board broached the possibility of severing the hospital’s relationship with the troubled Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
“We need to have an exit strategy,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
He proposed that the board give the medical school an ultimatum: reform its management or face the loss of its contract to run teaching programs at King/Drew.
A national accrediting board has yanked the school’s authorization to run training programs for aspiring surgeons and radiologists and has recommended closing the program in neonatology -- strong blows to both the school and the hospital.
The hospital’s reputation has been further stained by the deaths in recent months of three patients who were supposed to have been continuously monitored but apparently were not.
In response to the mounting crisis, the Board of Supervisors last fall appointed a task force headed by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher to recommend changes at Drew University, which is privately run but receives substantial public money. The board also sent a management team from the county Department of Health Services to temporarily oversee the hospital and asked for a report from the department’s chief, Dr. Thomas Garthwaite.
Having delivered their reports in recent weeks, Satcher and Garthwaite appeared before the board Tuesday to discuss them. Both men said they were optimistic that the hospital’s problems could be solved but only after sweeping management changes. Satcher went further, saying King/Drew could be a national model of a hospital that successfully adapts to the shifting needs of a poor, multiethnic community.
Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital was seen as a national symbol of black self-reliance and pride when it opened in 1972, in response to recommendations issued after the 1965 Watts riots. It served an area of South Los Angeles that was overwhelmingly African American.
The surrounding community has dramatically changed since then, and the hospital now serves an area that is more than 55% Latino and 40% African American. Although the hospital’s staff of doctors and nurses has become more ethnically diverse, including many foreign-born employees, its administration has remained almost exclusively African American, leading to charges of cronyism and discrimination.
Burke pointed out, however, that the management of the hospital has not become more diverse in large part because there has been relatively little turnover since King/Drew’s early days.
“Some of those people are excellent,” Burke said of the hospital administration. “Some of them may not be so excellent. So what we have to talk about is excellence in achieving the best possible staff to meet the needs of a community that has tremendous requirements.”
Her comments were provocative given the sensitivities surrounding King/Drew, where race has been more the subtext than the subject of most discussions.
Supervisor Gloria Molina alluded to that, saying, “I think there continues to be this ghost or this cloud that continues to be over MLK, and it’s very troublesome because it comes in and interferes with ... that culture of change, and I think we need to talk about it.”
The supervisors used some of their strongest language yet to describe the crisis at the hospital and their determination to solve it. Supervisor Mike Antonovich used the metaphor of the Titanic, telling Garthwaite, “You’re sinking.”
Yaroslavsky responded, “I usually scoff at Antonovich’s Titanic line, but in this case I think it’s appropriate.”
The supervisors approved recommendations by Garthwaite that the county begin consolidating or restructuring clinical services at King/Drew and that it be given greater flexibility to pay competitive rates to nurses. They also agreed with Garthwaite’s proposal that the county cancel its contract with Drew University and renegotiate it to include demands for reform.
At Yaroslavsky’s urging, the board agreed that it would wait 60 days and then threaten to cancel the contract altogether if Drew’s board of directors has not begun the process of reforming itself and the university’s training programs.
Without such a prod, Yaroslavsky said, “I’m fearful that we’re going to regress to the status quo, and that’s unacceptable.”