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Besieged Hospital ‘Cleaning House’

Times Staff Writers

Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center took steps this week to fire three physicians after auditors uncovered more alleged incidents of moonlighting, fraud and misbehavior by the public hospital’s senior doctors.

Three other doctors have been suspended without pay as Los Angeles County officials investigate similar claims against them.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 12, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 12, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
King/Drew doctors -- An article in Friday’s Section A about doctors disciplined at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center referred to Dr. Eugene Christian Jr. as head of the hospital’s geriatrics division. Christian was in charge of King/Drew’s elder abuse program.

The allegations come days before the county Board of Supervisors is expected to weigh -- once again -- whether King/Drew should remain open as a full-service hospital. In recent months, the supervisors’ weekly meetings have been overtaken by angry debates about continued lapses in care at the 33-year-old hospital and corruption among its staffers.

County health officials, who oversee King/Drew, admitted that the hospital should have moved to fire the three doctors two months ago when hospital leaders -- and the highly paid consultants overseeing them -- first reviewed auditors’ findings. When the delay was discovered, they say, they took “immediate action.”

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“We are, in essence, cleaning house,” said Fred Leaf, chief operating officer at the county Department of Health Services.

Since January 2004, King/Drew has fired or moved to fire 13 doctors; an additional 11 have resigned under threat of discipline, county officials said. Just last week, the head of pediatrics quit under pressure after auditors determined he was working at his private practice 83 miles away while being paid to be at King/Drew.

Leaf said he believes most King/Drew staffers are honest, but “there’s still a large percentage of employees that don’t do their job, aren’t committed, are dishonest, and need to be dealt with quickly and decisively.”

The three doctors notified this week of their impending termination are Eugene Christian Jr., who oversaw King/Drew’s geriatrics division; internist Anthony Kingsley; and Rita Ogbo, who works at a health center overseen by King/Drew, according to a memo from county health officials delivered Wednesday to the Board of Supervisors. Kingsley and Ogbo are married, auditors said.

County officials also acknowledged Thursday that nephrologist Harry Ward, one of the suspended physicians, had been previously investigated by auditors in 1998, following a Los Angeles Times article about rampant moonlighting by King/Drew doctors. Although county auditors subsequently recommended that Ward be disciplined for working at a private dialysis center on county time, health officials said it appears that no action was taken. He still works at the center, officials said.

A neurologist, Carlos Rosario, and a neurosurgeon, Daniel Le May, also were suspended this week while moonlighting allegations against them are investigated, county officials said.

In interviews Thursday, Christian, Ogbo, Ward and Rosario said they had not violated any county rules. Neither Le May nor Kingsley could be reached.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich described the latest allegations as “deplorable” and called for a countywide investigation of illicit moonlighting at public hospitals.

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“These individuals, who have the highest trust from our society

The most recent audit began with a tip to the county’s fraud hotline. Following up, auditors determined in 2004 that Christian, who has headed King/Drew’s geriatrics division for four years, was working at his private practice on county time.

His department head told auditors he’d questioned Christian’s work habits for “approximately three years,” but had done nothing about it. He said that when called or paged while on duty, the physician sometimes was not at King/Drew.

On March 29, 2004, the one day cited in the report, Christian signed his timecard indicating he had been at King/Drew from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Auditors said they saw Christian arriving in the parking lot of his Los Angeles private practice at 3:21 p.m.

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When confronted by auditors, Christian told them that on many days he returns to King/Drew after working at his private practice, although he does not indicate that on his timecard, the report said. County rules require that timecards show the hours actually worked at the hospital.

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Christian said he had not yet been told that he was being terminated. He said he routinely put in more than 40 hours a week at King/Drew and perhaps was being singled out because of a personality conflict with the department chairman, Dr. Thomas Yoshikawa.

“If that’s all they have and they want to terminate me because of that, what can I tell you?” Christian said. “But I guarantee you, I have been everywhere I was supposed to be and then some -- and then some.”

In fact, Yoshikawa was faulted by auditors as well, for lax supervision, including failing to verify timecards, finish performance evaluations and take corrective action for “perceived inappropriate behavior.”

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Yoshikawa, head of the internal medicine department, is among King/Drew’s best-compensated physicians, drawing $368,270 a year including his King/Drew salary and a stipend from its affiliated medical school. Auditors recommended that he be disciplined.

On Thursday, Yoshikawa referred questions about the audit to King/Drew’s medical director, Roger Peeks. Peeks did not return calls seeking comment.

Another doctor in Yoshikawa’s department, Kingsley, was seeing patients in private clinics while on medical leave from King/Drew, auditors said. Between January 2003 and February 2004, including the dates Kingsley was off work while supposedly recovering from a car accident, more than 450 claims for Medi-Cal reimbursement were submitted from his private clinic in Carson, auditors said.

While investigating Kingsley, auditors said, they discovered alleged moonlighting by his wife, Ogbo. On March 23, 2004, auditors said, when they went to visit Kingsley’s El Monte clinic, Ogbo was there. On her timecard, Ogbo indicated that she had been at the Hubert H. Humphrey Comprehensive Health Center from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. that day. The center is overseen by King/Drew.

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The inspectors also determined that Ogbo billed Medi-Cal for seeing private patients on days she was scheduled to work at the Humphrey clinic.

Ogbo maintains that the auditors were confused. Actually, she said, she was at Humphrey on March 23 and the auditors actually visited her private clinic March 17, one of her days off. She also said the Medi-Cal billings attributed to her were from a larger group practice with which she was affiliated.

“Everything there, it’s a lie,” Ogbo said. At Humphrey, “I’m the early bird. I’m the first to come, I’m the last to leave.”

Ward, who heads King/Drew’s nephrology division, said county officials are aware that he trains aspiring King/Drew kidney specialists, conducts research and sees patients at a private dialysis clinic. But, he said, he does not shirk his King/Drew duties.

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Every teaching physician, he said, “has some discrepancies at one time or another on their timecard, but they’re not trying to defraud the county.”

Rosario, the neurologist suspended pending an investigation, said he also disclosed his outside work to his superiors at the hospital and received their permission. He said he never worked outside the hospital until he had fulfilled his 40-hour workweek requirement to King/Drew.

Rosario said he is being targeted because he has complained about misuse of funds by physician leaders as well as other deficiencies at King/Drew.

“There isn’t anything that I have done which is irregular,” Rosario said. “They’ve been harassing me since I’ve been here for opening my mouth about things.”

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