Galvanized by what they called “an attack on our community,” more than 200 supporters of the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center packed the basement of a Watts church Friday to protest service reductions, budget cuts and other changes at the hospital.
Led by a defiant U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), the rally at Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest and most organized defense yet of King/Drew during its recent spate of problems. The hospital and its affiliated medical school, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, have been buffeted in recent months by unfavorable reviews by government inspectors, questionable patient deaths and the revocation of accreditation in critical training programs.
In response, the county has undertaken a host of changes, including laying off some administrators and turning King/Drew’s day-to-day operations over to a crisis-management team.
While many of those changes were met with minimal resistance, the same is not true of the county’s decision earlier this month to scale back the medical services allowed at one of King/Drew’s flagship units, neonatal intensive care. That move appears to have struck a chord with hospital supporters, who vowed to fight any change in the neonatal unit’s status.
Flanked by a cheering crowd of King/Drew doctors, medical residents, community activists and clergy, Waters issued an ultimatum to a county health department representative who attended the rally: Reverse the decision or face the wrath of the hospital’s supporters.
“We don’t care what the decision has been,” Waters said. “We will be on top of your desk.... This is a decision we will not take...You tell [health department director Thomas] Garthwaite, you tell the task force, I will tell [County Supervisor] Yvonne Burke, I will tell everybody: This decision we will not take.”
County officials -- including Burke, who represents the district in which King/Drew is located -- have repeatedly denied that there are any plans to close the Willowbrook hospital, which serves primarily a low-income and minority population. Fliers advertising the rally said the county is closing the facility.
Burke, who said in a telephone interview Friday that she could not attend the event because of a previous engagement, said she knew of “no motion or intention” to close the hospital.
“If King/Drew closed, the entire trauma network in Southern California would fall apart,” Burke said. “Other hospitals wouldn’t be able to handle the patient load.”
But longtime King/Drew supporter Lillian Mobley was among the many who voiced skepticism.
Mobley, a community activist whose likeness appears on a bust in a clinical-trials unit at Drew that bears her name, said the hospital is being closed “piece by piece.”
“Don’t let them tell you that King/Drew is not going to close,” Mobley told the hushed crowd. “If they gut it, it’s going to close.”
Jeffrey Guterman, a senior medical director with the county’s Department of Health Services, attended the rally and faced heated questioning from some audience members.
Guterman said many of the changes at King/Drew are part of a $300-million reduction in services and “re-missioning” of county hospitals.
“The department understands that there are going to be real repercussions, some of them positive and some of them negative,” said Guterman.