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King/Drew: Jabs and cuts

DOES EVERY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS hearing involving Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center have to be as painful as a chemotherapy session? Judging from Tuesday’s meeting, apparently so. The L.A. County Department of Health Services has proposed closing the pediatric, obstetric and neonatology wards and cutting back staff and surgery services that would be needed if the hospital were to reopen its shuttered trauma unit. But the supervisors weren’t voting on that plan Tuesday -- just on whether to continue the discussion about it. Still, that was enough to provoke personal attacks, shouts of racism and calls for resignations.

The crowning irony of this entire debate is that everyone, on all sides, is fighting to keep the hospital open. The only disagreement is about the best way to go about it. In the end, despite the divisive rhetoric, the supervisors made the right move. By a 3-2 vote, they opted to hold a public hearing on the ward-closure plan Oct. 18, rejecting a motion by supervisors Gloria Molina and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke to delay even the vote on the hearing another six weeks.

If the supervisors ultimately decide to close the wards, it would be a painful psychological blow to the largely poor, minority community served by King/Drew, which was established after the 1965 Watts riots in an effort to bring desperately needed healthcare services to South L.A. Its trauma unit was closed in March, and to advocates it seems that the hard-won hospital is being eaten away piecemeal.

Adding to the controversy is that the 13-member board of healthcare experts appointed to advise the supervisors on King/Drew had no input on the plan to close the wards. In a meeting last week, the board rejected the recommendations, saying they threaten the stability of King/Drew and their long-term impact on the community hasn’t been adequately studied.

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Yet there is nothing unreasonable about the Department of Health Services proposal. After decades of mismanagement and needless patient deaths, with the hospital’s accreditation gone and its $200 million in federal funding jeopardized, it is clear that King/Drew needs to downsize from a full-service academic and research institution to a high-quality community hospital for its own survival. The department found that the community’s needs would be best served by expanding outpatient services for pediatrics, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer screening and treatment, while cutting obstetrics and pediatrics wards that are becoming obsolete.

L.A.'s children are the best-insured segment of the population, thanks to federal, state and local initiatives. Further, private hospitals aggressively market their obstetrics services to Medi-Cal recipients. The result is that pregnant women and parents are increasingly taking their insured children to private facilities. There were just 622 births at King/Drew last year, compared with 4,000 a decade ago; hospitals with healthy obstetrics programs typically deliver at least 1,000 babies per year, according to the DHS.

The community and the hospital advisory board have until Sept. 30 to submit alternatives to the ward-closure plan. If opponents hope to sway supervisors to their side, they’d be better off responding to these numbers than repeating the charges of racism and sexism that have characterized their position so far.


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