Leaders of the effort to keep open the trauma center at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center called Monday for the resignation of the director of Los Angeles County’s health department, intensifying the political battle over the hospital’s future.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted last month to hold a hearing in November on whether to close the trauma center, saying the drastic action was necessary to save the rest of the troubled hospital.
But U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), one of the political leaders trying to keep the trauma center open, sought Monday to put the onus for King/Drew’s problems on the man who recommended closing the unit, Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, director of the county’s Department of Health Services.
“He has failed,” she said. “He has let us all down.”
Waters and other critics spoke at a news conference at the hospital, trying to build political pressure on the Board of Supervisors as it considers the closure plan.
County officials and healthcare industry leaders came to Garthwaite’s defense, some suggesting that he has become a convenient scapegoat for advocating sound but tough ways to improve King/Drew.
“The reason this hospital is in the mess it’s in is because of the kind of political reaction we’ve seen in the last month from political leaders,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who supports closing the trauma center. “Medical decisions should not be made for political considerations.”
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who represents the district where King/Drew is located and was the only supervisor to vote against considering the closure plan, said she did not support the call for resignation.
Although the politicians “have every right” to object, she said, “the last thing we need to start doing is to remove people when we’re in this kind of a crisis.”
Garthwaite, who has run the department for about three years, said he had no intention of resigning.
“My honest opinion is that the reason that the problems at King/Drew are as deep and as difficult as they are is that for many, many years, managers were not empowered to make change there,” he said.
“People other than those in charge resisted change, resisted improvement, went around the managers to politicians, and that set up the kind of situation and culture that’s pervasive. And that’s why it’s so hard to change.”
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar in USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, said targeting Garthwaite allows closure foes to appear to be trying to fix the problems at King/Drew without attacking doctors and nurses inside the hospital.
“If you focus on the guy in charge, you get more attention,” said Jeffe. Garthwaite “is an easy symbol that voters can identify. If you want to get attention, you start at the top.”
Garthwaite has said closing the trauma center, which treated about 2,150 severely injured patients last year, would allow officials to reallocate resources to other crucial hospital functions.
King/Drew has been reeling in the last year from a series of lapses in patient care, including several that contributed to patient deaths, according to regulators. The latest revelation came Monday, when the county confirmed that a 28-year-old patient died Thursday after a nurse turned down the audio alarm on his vital-signs monitor, then failed to notice that the man’s heart was barely beating.
Flanked by Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) and City Councilman Bernard Parks, Waters attacked Garthwaite and others for allowing the problems at King/Drew to continue.
“We call on the incompetent management to resign, to step down. They have violated us,” she said.
The group also criticized Fred Leaf, the health services department’s second in command, for leading the county’s interim management team at the hospital poorly. They also faulted the Board of Supervisors for betraying a community in desperate need of a trauma center and for making the decision in secret.
County health officials declined to make Leaf available for comment.
In the last few weeks, a host of politicians, including Mayor James K. Hahn and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), have pleaded with the county not to close the hospital.
Waters, Dymally and other politicians have held rallies, news conferences, protests and hearings in defense of King/Drew in the months since the hospital has come under fire for the quality of its patient care.
Although the supervisors have been highly critical of the health services department’s handling of King/Drew, they lately have stepped away from such accusations, acknowledging the deep challenges Garthwaite faces.
Supervisor Gloria Molina considered Garthwaite’s proposals for King/Drew “reasonable” and “based on facts,” the supervisor’s spokeswoman said Monday. But Roxane Marquez said Molina would have to take more time to consider whether Garthwaite should resign.
“To my boss, getting rid of the head of [the department of health services] is extremely serious,” she said. “It affects not just King/Drew but the entire health network.... Right now, a lot of the community vitriol is based on what’s going on at King/Drew.”
Others in the healthcare community defended Garthwaite’s handling of King/Drew.
Jim Lott, spokesman for the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, said trying to oust Garthwaite is unproductive. Waters and other critics of the health services department, he said, don’t know much about running a trauma center.
“Dr. Garthwaite is presenting the Board of Supervisors with cogent, well-thought-through and logical solutions for the board to consider,” he said.
“These health department officials have done a masterful job of keeping the regulators at bay and working with them keep the vitally needed hospital alive.”
Times staff writer Tracy Weber contributed to this report.