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King/Drew Downsizing Assailed

Times Staff Writer

Several elected officials on Friday condemned a proposal by a Los Angeles County agency to close obstetrics and children’s wards at troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, vowing at a community meeting that the public hospital would not be downsized without a fight.

“This edifice, this center, must go forward.... It’s like death by a thousand cuts,” U.S. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) told the gathering of more than 100 people.

She added, “We are not going to allow lifesaving and healing services to move out of walking distance for the people who live in this community.”

The four-hour meeting drew community members, hospital consultants and medical personnel -- many of whom punctuated Watson’s remarks and others’ with murmurs of approval and applause.

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The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services has proposed closing the pediatric, obstetric and neonatology wards and slashing staff and surgery services, while adding a range of outpatient services. On Tuesday, the bitterly divided county Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to set a public hearing on the matter for Oct. 18.

The health department has argued that the community’s needs would be better served by expanding outpatient services, and insisted that far fewer people than before were using the obstetrics and pediatric wards.

The board is under pressure from the federal government to reform the hospital after a series of questionable patient deaths and other lapses in care. Unless sufficient progress is made, the county risks losing $200 million in federal funds -- about half of King/Drew’s budget.

The hospital’s trauma center was closed in March, and King/Drew recently lost its national accreditation.

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Supporters have argued that closure of the wards would deal a severe blow to the largely poor and minority community served by King/Drew, which was established to bring much needed healthcare services to South Los Angeles following the Watts riots in 1965.

“We cannot sit idly by on the 40th anniversary of the uprising that became the impetus for this medical facility and allow the services it provides to this community to go unchallenged,” said U.S. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson), who convened the community hearing.

Hank Wells, of Navigant Consulting Inc., which the county hired for one year to revamp the hospital’s operations, said at the hearing that about 96% of the people served by King/Drew were giving birth at facilities outside the community.

But Millender-McDonald countered, “We’re still having babies around here, and we still need neonatal care around here. I will not have men who don’t live around here telling us what we don’t need here.”

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“It’s appalling to think a pregnant woman has to go 10 or 12 miles to get the services that she needs,” said Watson.

Wells said that King/Drew had made some significant improvements and “miracles are happening at this hospital every day.”

Wells noted that there had been a 50% decrease in inpatient mortality since January; the wait for emergency room triage was down from 75 minutes to 35 minutes and the average length of hospital stays was down from 5 1/2 days to 4 1/2 days.

However, there was “still a lot to be done,” Wells said, noting that the facility was still having problems attracting nursing staff.

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Several of the local officials accused the media, in particular the Los Angeles Times, of maligning King/Drew’s reputation.

“They have become so critical, so antagonistic, so hostile toward the institution that I worry who is behind that,” state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) said of the newspaper’s editorials.

Some officials also were critical of the county’s decision this week to hire Antionette Smith Epps of Alabama as King/Drew’s first permanent chief executive in four years, complaining that she was unfamiliar with the hospital and that they had to learn of the move from the media.

“She doesn’t know the demographics, she doesn’t know the people, she doesn’t know the needs,” Watson said.

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