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Cliches Are as Persistent as the Crises at King/Drew

Times Staff Writer

One of the discouraging things about covering the problems at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center is the historical symmetry to the story.

Here, for example, are the first two paragraphs of an article published in The Times in 1989:

“State health officials issued a 90-page report Tuesday citing serious deficiencies in health care practices at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

“The deficiencies could threaten the hospital’s Medicare funding and its state license, according to federal and state officials.”

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Now, here’s a quote from Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke about fixing problems at the hospital: “It is going to take drastic action to take care of some of the problems that have become endemic [at King/Drew]. It has not had the kind of review and control that I think it needs.”

And that brings us to question numero uno:

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Question: What year did Burke’s quote appear in the paper?

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Answer: 1995.

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Q: And what kind of “review and control” did the county implement?

A: Not enough. County officials were informed last month that nine of King/Drew’s 23 departments had flunked the hospital’s latest federal inspection. A perfect score -- 23 of 23 -- was needed to pass.

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That caused federal regulators to strip the hospital of about half its funding -- $200 million in annual Medicare money.

And if county officials don’t find a way to get it back, King/Drew would probably have to shut down -- leaving one of the region’s neediest communities without a hospital.

Since the news broke, county officials have come up with a plan.

They want to put King/Drew under the purview of another county facility, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, 10 miles away near Torrance.

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There is no word yet from the feds whether that plan is acceptable.

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Q: And what happened the morning of Sept. 25 at King/Drew?

A: Community activists held a news conference outside to show support for keeping King/Drew open.

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That’s when Lydia D. Oliver, 45, a traveling nurse from Oklahoma, stepped before reporters and said she had worked at King/Drew since January and had seen too many people drive up to the emergency room with gunshot wounds.

“If the hospital wasn’t here, where else would they go?” Oliver asked.

A few minutes later, Oliver said she agreed there were some problems at the hospital but that she was surprised the hospital flunked its latest test.

“I was devastated. I thought we did well,” Oliver said.

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Check out the photo of Oliver taken by The Times’ Mel Melcon that day -- again, the date was Sept. 25 -- and see if you find anything odd. (Hint: Notice her identification badge?)

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Q: And Oliver’s explanation?

A: She said she had been so busy tending patients that she hadn’t had time to update her expired ID.

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Yes, it’s picky.

But chew on this: If you’re lying in a bed at a hospital that’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons and a nurse is coming your way holding, for example, a catheter, is the last thing you want to see before shutting your eyes an expired ID badge?

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Q: How quickly could Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa dig his subway to the sea, if money ever becomes available?

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A: It could take as little as 1 1/2 years to carve the 13-mile tunnel, according to some experts.

On Sept. 8, the mayor’s office convened a meeting in City Hall of several prominent engineering firms and tunneling experts. The subject: Villaraigosa wanted to know the quickest way to get the subway done.

The experts told the mayor’s office that the best way would be to use as many as eight to 10 tunneling machines at once. Just two machines are being used to excavate the twin 1.8-mile tunnels under Boyle Heights for the Gold Line light rail extension.

Workers could drill several shafts along the route and lower the machines into the ground. The project could be further sped by allowing construction crews to work virtually around the clock.

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There was also talk about building stations. The conventional method is to dig a huge pit in the ground (the deepest station on the current subway is 110 feet underground at Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue).

Experts told the mayor that another method would instead use mining technology to expand the tunnels where they would reach stations, thereby avoiding a lot of construction at street level.

“Securing the money for the subway is going to be one thing and the engineering is another,” said Deputy Mayor Jaime de la Vega, who oversees transit issues for Villaraigosa. “We’re trying to get the environmental planning and design work done and break ground by the time the mayor leaves office.”

Villaraigosa’s current term ends in 2009, but if reelected he would be eligible to serve another term until 2013 under the City Charter.

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Given that relatively short horizon, Villaraigosa is taking matters into his own hands with the subway. It will be interesting to see how that plays politically with other members of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has yet to approve the project.

Even more fascinating is that the mayor believes he has a shot -- albeit a very long one -- of getting the subway done by 2016, the same year he hopes that Los Angeles hosts the Summer Olympics.

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Q: What would City Councilman Tom LaBonge do to make passengers more comfortable during the renovation of the Tom Bradley Terminal at LAX?

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A: Provide free root beer floats to passengers on the final Thursday of every month.

The $723-million overhaul of the terminal begins in January and will take until 2010 to complete. The terminal will remain open during the work.

The City Council approved most of the contracts for the project last week. During the debate, the council’s resident Man of Deep Thoughts -- a.k.a. LaBonge -- demanded that each passenger be given a free bottle of water as a pardon-my-dust token.

Airport officials testifying before the council nodded politely and then completely ignored LaBonge’s idea.

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A few minutes later, a reporter suggested to LaBonge that he could have at least offered a free soft drink. The councilman, known for his quick-draw abilities on policy, then blurted out his root beer float scheme.

It is, of course, a profoundly excellent idea -- at least for LAX passengers who are not diabetic, lactose intolerant or from a country where “root beer float” doesn’t translate into something like “drinking the blood of the devil.” Otherwise, this column suggests using Frostie’s root beer and Graeter’s ice cream from Cincinnati.

And this column hopes that LaBonge doesn’t stop there. How about using city helicopters to drop free lollipops to anyone stuck in traffic the first Monday of the month?

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steve.hymon@latimes.com


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