Burke is quiet on fate of hospital

Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke answered talk about closing the long-troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center with an emphatic declaration: “That hospital will be closed over my dead body.”

But today, as the hospital faces state action to revoke its license and supervisors weigh whether to shutter the facility themselves, Burke is alive yet conspicuously silent.

Over the last week, the supervisor has failed to respond to questions from reporters and has been absent from key moments in the unfurling drama surrounding the hospital. She has left the task of addressing the public largely to her board colleagues, some of whom she has fiercely disagreed with in the past.


The silence has created a stir among aides to other supervisors and alienated some of her constituents, who said they expected Burke to unveil a rescue plan or at least provide a voice in defense of the hospital. Some blame her for the hospital’s current crisis.

“The board is responsible, but she is particularly responsible because it’s her district,” said Larry Aubry, a Los Angeles Sentinel columnist and member of the group Community Call to Action and Accountability. He said Burke should be speaking out now in support of the hospital. “I think she owes it to her constituents. I think she owes it to the patients.”

A spokeswoman for Burke said Monday that the supervisor understood the frustration but did not intend to speak out.

“Everybody is kind of wanting her, but she just doesn’t have any comment at this time,” said Tashara Murray, one of Burke’s aides.

Burke’s decision not to speak comes as the fate of the hospital -- now under the oversight of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center -- looks dimmer than ever.

Last week, state officials moved to pull the license of Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, as it is now known, after its failures made national news: A 43-year-old woman died after writhing unattended on the floor of the emergency room lobby for 45 minutes. A second case came to light as well, in which a brain-tumor patient waited four days without treatment before his family and friends drove him to another county hospital for emergency surgery.

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote today on whether to start shutting the hospital temporarily. Under such a scenario, the board could avoid the hospital losing its state license by suspending it instead, thereby making it easier to reopen later.

A brief reprieve was announced after an inspection Monday, when inspectors determined that King-Harbor had corrected problems that earlier this month put emergency room patients in immediate jeopardy of harm or death. That decision preserves federal certification and funding for the hospital until August, when it must pass a broader federal review or lose funding.

Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton, said he found it interesting that Burke had not repeated her previous unequivocal statements against closure but said that the rapid pace of recent developments should give everyone pause.

He noted that supervisors last week criticized county health officials for failing to deliver bad news quickly and said it should come as no surprise that some board members would want to quietly consider their next move.

“I’m sure she’s very torn,” Sonenshein said. “In the long run, I think that the county will be better served by everybody thinking about it instead of talking about it.”

Supporters also came to her defense, saying it was unfair to blame her for the hospital’s problems.

“There’s nothing she can do because she’s only got one vote,” said “Sweet” Alice Harris, 73, a longtime Watts activist. “You’ve got to have a majority of the supervisors, and the majority of the supervisors don’t want to have Martin Luther King hospital there.”

In a statement released Friday, Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) touted his own work in trying to rescue King-Harbor but used Burke’s contribution by way of comparison.

“No one in this state other than Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke has worked as hard to save this hospital,” he said of himself.

On Monday, Dymally said he planned to amend legislation to create a special hospital authority to run the hospital rather than the county running it.

Burke’s public life began much as the hospital did, out of the ashes of the 1965 Watts riots. She served as a staff attorney on the McCone Commission that investigated the causes of the unrest.

The commission concluded that residents in Watts and surrounding communities, then overwhelmingly African American, suffered from grossly inadequate healthcare, in part because the nearest county hospitals were distant and difficult to reach. Eventually, King/Drew was built.

Burke, 74, has announced that she plans to retire from the board next year. State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) said that her frustrations over the hospital have grown.

“I think she finds all of this distressing, and quite frankly, it’s risen to the level of being overwhelming,” said Ridley-Thomas, who is considering a run for Burke’s seat next year.

Some advocates of keeping the hospital open said its closure would tarnish Burke’s reputation, which was built over four decades.

“It would be a shame and a travesty to have her career marred by an event like that,” said Frederick O. Murph, pastor of Brookins Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles.

Criticism of Burke has been rare in her district, where she is well loved. But Murph said he was upset that Burke hasn’t spoken out in recent days.

“She made the statement not long ago that the hospital would close over her dead body, and her body cannot be found anywhere,” he said. “I find that rather curious. It’s in her district.”

Civil rights activist Najee Ali was even more critical.

“There’s a growing outrage at Burke being missing in action,” said Ali, who lives in South Los Angeles, near the hospital. Ali said Burke should step down now. “She has failed the community, and her failure and absence of leadership, through the King/Drew hospital crisis, has put at risk the lives of the entire community.”

Burke’s absence during two critical days last week also raised eyebrows.

She was out of the office Thursday, the day state regulators announced they were moving to revoke the hospital’s license. She was also absent Friday, when county health officials unveiled their plan for handling patients if the hospital does close.

A reporter reached Burke on her cellphone Friday evening after leaving numerous voice messages. After the reporter identified himself, Burke initially said, “I can’t speak right now.”

Then she asked, “Who is it? I can’t hear you. Who is it? I can’t hear you.” The phone went dead. Burke did not return further calls.

Her deputies would not divulge where Burke was on Thursday and Friday, saying only that she was “out of commission” and had scheduled her activities long in advance. She returned to the office Monday but declined to take calls.


Times staff writer Charles Ornstein contributed to this report.