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2 Doctors Leave Troubled Hospital

Times Staff Writers

Two prominent physicians at troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center have left the hospital.

Dr. George E. Locke, who started working at the hospital in 1974, retired as chairman of the neurosciences department, and Dr. James K. Brannon resigned as an orthopedic surgeon.

The doctors’ departures come as King/Drew struggles to fix myriad problems. A five-part Times investigation in December detailed medical errors, neglect and financial mismanagement at the Los Angeles County-run hospital south of Watts.

Last month, the hospital lost its national accreditation because of patient-care lapses found during inspections last year. And federal health inspectors have threatened to pull funding from the hospital three times in less than a year.

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Both Locke and Brannon were featured in the Times investigation.

Neither physician returned calls seeking comment about their resignations. County officials declined to discuss their departures.

Locke, a well-known hospital leader, was among the highest-paid county employees. Over the last two fiscal years, he had made a total of more than $1 million, including his hospital salary and a stipend he received from King/Drew’s affiliated medical school, records show.

Yet top county officials were unable to say what Locke, who oversaw both neurosurgery and neurology, did to justify the compensation.

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During one public meeting last year, Supervisor Mike Antonovich questioned the hundreds of thousands of dollars in “taxpayer money” that Locke received and whether he had earned it.

A Times review of county records found that Locke, 70, took part in only 15 of the 501 surgeries performed by his department in the four years ending in December 2003.

The Times also found that Locke’s timecards, at times, showed him working more hours than he spent at the hospital. For instance, last July 26, Locke’s timecard showed him working 12 hours and being on call an additional 14, for an impossible total of 26 hours. He was at the hospital for 6 1/2 hours.

Unless doctors are on call, county rules require them to work at the hospital for the hours listed on their timecards.

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Locke’s retirement took effect Feb. 18.

In a letter to The Times in November, his attorney, Lawrence Silver, wrote: “The practice of medicine knows no timecards.”

“This is not an employment where the cobbler works at his bench and cannot perform his tasks unless he is at the place of business,” he wrote.

Surgeon Brannon resigned Monday.

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Last year, The Times reported that he had ordered nearly $1 million in medical equipment for his surgeries over five years from a company he co-owns, according to county records. The disposable items, used for bone grafts, are far more expensive than the reusable devices employed by most hospitals, outside experts told The Times.

A subsequent health department audit found that King/Drew’s oversight of such purchases was lax and that Brannon might have violated state and federal conflict of interest and disclosure laws.

Brannon has denied wrongdoing, saying he ordered his company’s equipment with the full approval of the county.

Dr. Clarence Woods, former chief of orthopedic surgery, called Brannon’s loss devastating. Two other doctors have recently resigned, he said, and there may not be enough surgeons to treat the number of patients requiring surgery and to oversee doctors-in-training.

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One of those surgeons, Dr. William T. Long, resigned late last year after being threatened with dismissal for allegedly falsifying his timecards and referring insured King/Drew patients to his private practice. Long has denied the allegations and said the county dropped them before he resigned.

“The workload that was there is still there,” Woods said.

Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, director of the county Department of Health Services, would not comment on the departure of either Locke or Brannon, but he said King/Drew needed to move forward with “people who are extremely dedicated to patient care and teaching.”

“That dedication to me means showing up for work and putting extra effort ... into patient care,” he said. “We have a lot of doctors down there who do that, and in the past we’ve had some who haven’t.”

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