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A Plan to Save King/Drew Gets Tough

Times Staff Writers

Emergency services would remain intact, but a plan to rescue Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center would sweep out current employees and slash many services to give the troubled hospital a chance to avoid being stripped of vital federal money.

Los Angeles County Health Services Department chief Dr. Bruce Chernof is expected today to present the Board of Supervisors with a proposal to place the hospital under the control of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, another county facility 10 miles away, near Torrance.

According to Chernof’s nine-page proposal, most King/Drew services -- including obstetrics, pediatrics, ophthalmology and brain and heart surgery -- would be transferred to Harbor. King/Drew’s staff would be reassigned to other county facilities.

The report also suggests that the county may sever its relationship with the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, which trains about 300 medical residents at King/Drew. “Teaching programs add complexity and additional requirements for oversight, and create concerns about management of the medical care in the hospital,” the report said. Health department spokesman Michael Wilson said the county would consider it in the next several weeks.

The county was informed last month that King/Drew, in Willowbrook south of Watts, had flunked its latest federal inspection over the summer. As a result, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has said that by year’s end, it will pull about $200 million in support for King/Drew, or about half the hospital’s budget.

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As the plan was made public late Monday, residents of the King/Drew community were meeting with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to vent their concerns about the threatened closure of the hospital, which rose from the ashes of the 1965 Watts riots and is a source of pride because it remains the only major hospital in the area.

At the Watts Labor Community Action Committee center Monday night, about 300 people, including many local dignitaries, were at the rally with Waters and Jackson. It was unclear how much they knew about the proposal. At one point the crowd joined in the civil rights song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

Jackson spoke, making several comparisons between Iraq and Los Angeles. He said that if soldiers from this community are fighting and dying in Iraq, something should be done to make sure they can live at home.

“Its not just this hospital, it’s urban America,” he said. “They are closing down hospitals all across America. They need to fix it. We’re talking about life and death.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, also Monday, issued a statement in support of putting King/Drew under the control of another hospital.

But the proposed merger prompted Harbor-UCLA chief executive Tecla A. Mickoseff to tell her staff last week that she vehemently opposed the plan and might not remain to see it through, according to a medical department chairperson who spoke on condition of anonymity because staff had been instructed not to discuss the plan. Harbor-UCLA physicians interviewed for this report said they worried that a merger would erode their ability to provide existing Harbor patients with high-quality care.

“It seems like they’re just going to send it to us no matter what,” the chairperson said. “The laundry list is two pages long of ‘what’s wrong with this.’ ”

Another doctor who would not speak for attribution said he had heard that Mickoseff might resign. She is one of the Department of Health Services’ five hospital chiefs, and her resignation “would be a blow for the entire county healthcare system,” the doctor said.

Mickoseff could not be reached for comment. County health officials said they had not heard she might resign.

But officials confirmed that Chernof had visited Harbor-UCLA for two hours last Friday to tell the staff there that the hospital would probably be given charge of King/Drew.

A statement released Monday by the Harbor-UCLA Faculty Society said doctors there appreciated the need to serve the community around King/Drew. However, it added:

“It must be recognized that Harbor-UCLA’s resources are already stretched thin and that care must be taken to avoid weakening our hospital’s ability to serve its patients and carry on our healthcare mission.”

Reaction from the five county supervisors was mixed.

“All of the pieces have come together,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “This is much more radical than anything we’ve done before.”

“As much of a crisis as it is, as much of a disappointment” that the federal results represent, Yaroslavsky said, “it also represents a singular opportunity to radically overhaul the delivery of healthcare services in the southern part of Los Angeles County.”

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who as supervisor of King/Drew’s Willowbrook district was collecting petitions from community members Monday, could not be reached for her reaction to the plan.

A spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he considered the plan to be “effective,” and he praised Chernof’s efforts.

But Supervisor Don Knabe “has not by any means made up his mind” as to the best alternative for the hospital, said spokesman David Sommers. “He wants to hear what the public has to say.”

Supervisor Gloria Molina indicated through a spokesperson that she still wanted reassurances from federal regulators that the proposed plan would meet their approval.

Since the news broke late last month, county officials have been scrambling to find a way to keep King/Drew’s doors open and continue to serve the thousands of low-income patients who depend on King/Drew for medical care.

“It is the view of [federal health regulators] that the new Martin Luther King Hospital ... must be simpler and smaller,” Chernof wrote in the letter to supervisors.

The plan, if implemented, would call for King/Drew to have only 42 beds. The hospital in recent years has had about 252 beds. It remained unclear if King/Drew would have to close for a time while the staff changes were implemented.

In the memo, Chernof outlined how he made his recommendation.

He said the county could have disputed the federal regulators’ findings, but the King/Drew problems appear too deep to defend. Putting the hospital in the hands of a private sector firm was also considered, but there was too little time to negotiate a contract.

A third option was to put King/Drew under the management of another county facility. According to Chernof, Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar is too distant and County-USC Medical Center is scheduled to move into a new building next year.

“As a result, Harbor-UCLA ... was selected for its combination of clinical excellence, outstanding administrative, medical and nursing leadership and breadth of services,” Chernof wrote.

King/Drew would operate as a “typical community hospital” with the staff chosen by the new management team. The hospital would eventually have about 114 beds, if the proposal is adopted.

The letter states that some clinics and the psychiatric unit would remain at King/Drew. Inpatients would be concentrated on the fourth floor of the five-floor hospital and the new emergency room would be staffed with contract physicians. A women’s health clinic would remain at King/Drew, as would an urgent-care facility that would be open 24 hours a day.

Community activists delivered petitions with 2,000 signatures to Burke’s office on Monday, demanding that King/Drew remain a public hospital.

“King Drew is a hospital that is greatly valued in this community,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who heads the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. “People said to us, ‘We value this hospital. Do something. Do a petition so we can sign and let the supervisors know, let the health professionals know, let the community, let the world know how much we value this hospital, that it must be maintained at all costs.’ ”

Burke joined Hutchinson and other activists in an impromptu gathering outside her office and appealed for support in saving the hospital.

“Ultimately we’re trying to preserve the hospital, and to preserve that hospital we do need resources so we are going to have to do what is best for the hospital and the community,” Burke said. “This hospital is important as a safety net of this region.... I would prefer the hospital remain a public hospital.”

Burke said her office has been flooded with calls since the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services informed King/Drew and county officials on Sept. 23 that the hospital had failed a “make or break” inspection conducted this summer, falling short of minimum standards in nine of 23 areas and will lose its federal funding.

“Everyone is in a state of hysteria,” she said, “because closing would be devastating.”

On “The Front Page,” a black-oriented talk show on KJLH-FM (102.3), callers voiced frustrations over the crisis Monday morning with Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), a longtime supporter of King/Drew. “It seems like something drastically needs to be done,” said one caller. “It seems like something should have been done with that hospital’s abysmal record. I mean the many deaths, the fraudulent workers’ comp claims. That hospital should have been cleaned out years ago. That hospital has some of the worst records of any hospital in the country.”

“That is not true,” Dymally responded. “That is what you read in the L.A. Times. You have not been to the hospital. You’ve never inspected the hospital. You have no idea of the progress that has been made. The problem is this. You have a one paper city in the L.A. Times which has made a career of going after this hospital.”

Dominique DiPrima, host and producer of “The Front Page,” said there is a “lot of nervousness and concern around that issue of King Drew.” She had difficulty getting a politician to appear on the show, which airs live from 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m.

“No one wants to be a scapegoat for all the problems and no one has the answers,” DiPrima said. Meanwhile, she said, her listeners are demanding answers.

“There is a perception that black institutions in Los Angeles are under attack and dismantled,” she said. “They point to Compton College, Crenshaw High, Southwest College and King/Drew. There is a real concern.” Many of her listeners expressed the fear that when cuts at the Memorial campus of Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center in Inglewood are added to those anticipated at King/Drew, there will be a real health crisis in South Los Angeles.

Longtime resident Gloria Stringer, 63, who showed up at the Burke’s office to support the petition drive, said she wanted to save the hospital not just for the lives that could be saved but also to honor those who gave up so much to bring a hospital into the community.

“We have to have a hospital, an emergency room for the people in this community,” she said. “There is nothing close by.”

She recalled that people who once lived on the grounds where the hospital was built still have reunions.

“Such a waste,” she said. “They gave up their homes to build this hospital. It’s going to be so tragic if it closes.”

*

steve.hymon@latimes.com

john.mitchell@latimes.com

susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com

Times staff writers J. Michael Kennedy and Charles Ornstein contributed to this report.


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