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King/Drew Doctors Earn Top Dollar

Times Staff Writers

Doctors and medical staff at the troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center are among the highest-paid employees of Los Angeles County, making up more than a quarter of the top 100.

Top-dollar annual incomes -- ranging from nearly $180,000 to more than $239,000 -- were paid to 25 doctors and one nurse manager at the hospital last year, the same time the facility failed accreditation inspections and almost lost federal funding because of persistent lapses in patient care.

Most county supervisors expressed dismay at the salaries Wednesday and questioned whether the county was spending its money wisely. The county compiled the list of the top 100 incomes at the request of The Times.

By comparison, doctors at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, which employs more full-time staff than King/Drew, had only nine doctors on the list. Olive View/UCLA Medical Center had 10.

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“That’s what’s so frustrating -- we’re not getting the quality out of those doctors out there,” said Supervisor Don Knabe. “For that kind of money, you just expect quality care and management.”

Supervisor Mike Antonovich said taxpayers should contract for medical services at the Willowbrook facility, which treats patients from the predominantly minority, low-income neighborhoods near Watts.

“County taxpayers are the latest victims in the King/Drew tragedy, forced to subsidize fraud, malpractice and poor standards of medical care that have resulted in a string of deaths,” he said.

Four of the doctors on the list no longer work at King/Drew, including Dr. George E. Locke, former chairman of neurosciences. He retired in February following a county audit that accused him of exaggerating his work hours and other improprieties. The county paid Locke $239,348 in 2004. He was the fourth highest-paid county employee and the highest paid at King/Drew.

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Locke’s attorney has denied any wrongdoing by his client. In a November letter to The Times, Lawrence Silver wrote that his client was “consistently rewarded for his fine work by promotions and concomitant salary increases in recognition of his work.”

Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, the county’s director of health services, said he was concerned by the amount of overtime paid to doctors at King/Drew, but he cautioned against comparing their salaries to those at other county hospitals. Garthwaite was the county’s second-highest-paid employee last year, earning a salary of $286,800.

Sixty-eight of the top earners included medical doctors not only at King/Drew and county hospitals but also at other departments, including mental health, sheriff’s and the children’s protective services agency. Dr. Ruth E. Oren, an anesthesiologist at High Desert Hospital, topped the list with $291,308, including $98,774 in overtime.

Most county department heads were also on the list.

Sheriff Lee Baca was fifth at $237,527, and the county’s top fiscal manager, Chief Administrative Officer David E. Janssen, was the ninth-highest paid, at $229,026.

After doctors at King/Drew, the next largest number of highest-paid employees work for the county Fire Department -- Chief P. Michael Freeman and seventeen of his firefighters.

The firefighters made enough overtime to propel them into the exclusive ranks. On average, the 17 firefighters earned $82,063 in overtime. Two -- a battalion chief and a captain -- made more than $100,000 apiece in overtime, pushing their salaries over the $200,000 mark.

Overtime also pushed up salaries at King/Drew, where a nurse manager earned more than $102,000 in overtime.

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Garthwaite noted that the hospital had forced out many nursing managers last year in a massive shake-up. Those who were left, he said, may have had to work extra hours to fill in.

In addition, Garthwaite said one reason King/Drew doctors earn more than others at public hospitals is because the county has had trouble in the past attracting physicians and has had to offer better salaries.

“It has been harder to recruit people to work at King/Drew Medical Center than Harbor-UCLA because it’s a smaller university, it’s had various problems in the past and it’s a harder part of town to work in than others for some people,” he said.

The county’s review of employee pay echoes the results of a Times investigation published last year that found King/Drew pays its doctors lavishly, with some drawing twice what their counterparts make at other public hospitals -- often for doing less work.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the salaries reflect the county’s investment in King/Drew, which receives more money per patient than the three other general hospitals.

“It suggests what I’ve been saying for a long time: Money is not the problem at King/Drew Medical Center. Incompetence is,” he said. “This is not a hospital that has been shortchanged or starved of cash.”

A spokeswoman for Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said the salaries deserved more scrutiny but warned they should also be compared to private-sector hospitals, where doctors typically earn far more. Many of King/Drew’s doctors are blameless in the facility’s current problems and have done stellar work, she said.

“I know a lot of doctors out in the private sector who would probably laugh at $200,000 a year because they can make so much more,” said Burke’s spokeswoman, Glenda Wina. “But clearly, if they have not deserved the income that they’re making, believe me, they will not be making it for long.”

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