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Troubled Hospital Gets New Chief

Times Staff Writers

For the first time in almost four years, a permanent chief executive has been hired to run the troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

Antionette Smith Epps, director of systems operations at Baptist Health System in Birmingham, Ala., will start at King/Drew on Oct. 17 -- one day before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors holds a public hearing to consider closing the hospital’s pediatric, obstetric and neonatology wards.

Smith Epps, 47, said Thursday that she wasn’t daunted by the many challenges facing the public hospital, where a series of questionable deaths has occurred and federal regulators continue to find lapses in patient care. If it doesn’t reform, the hospital faces the loss of $200 million in funding -- half its budget. King/Drew lost its accreditation in February.

“Hospitals always face challenges,” Smith Epps said. “It’s a matter of degree, I suppose, at King.... All of it going on at the same time, that ramps up the intensity. That ramps up the urgency level.”

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Smith Epps, who will be paid $225,000 annually, said she looked at the job as “a unique opportunity to make sure every citizen served by that facility has access to quality healthcare.”

King/Drew, in Willowbrook, south of Watts, serves a predominantly impoverished, minority community.

Smith Epps said her priority was to bring in a like-minded team to aid her. Several key positions have remained vacant pending the hiring of a chief executive. She also said that a number of King/Drew staffers wanted to turn the hospital around and that she hoped to build her staff around them.

“Is it going to be easy? No, ma’am. Is it going to be immediate? No, ma’am,” she said.

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Smith Epps’ appointment was welcomed by many of those working to fix King/Drew, who said she was a vibrant leader who was coming into the job with no illusions.

“The lady has some charisma,” said Jim Lott, vice chairman of King/Drew’s advisory board and executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California. “She also has a strong, hands-on work ethic.... They’ll see her everywhere. She’ll bring the compass and the map for them to find their way out of the morass they’re in.”

Since the last permanent chief executive, Randall Foster, left in 2001, King/Drew has had four acting administrators, two of whom work for Navigant Consulting Inc., the firm being paid $15 million over one year to reform the hospital.

Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, director of the county Department of Health Services, said Smith Epps impressed everyone who met her. She demonstrated “a level of maturity and understanding of what she’s getting into, but also a willingness to believe that you can make a difference and a willingness to lay it on the line to try.”

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Garthwaite said Smith Epps’ recruitment began the process of filling out the management team at King/Drew.


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