State regulators to inspect Olive View hospital

State regulators said Tuesday that they plan to inspect Olive View- UCLA Medical Center as soon as possible, following admissions by hospital and county officials that they did not know the neonatal intensive care unit had been downgraded for more than a year and a half.

County health officials announced a shift in policy Tuesday, even as they continued to say the county-run facility in Sylmar was allowed to care for seriously ill babies despite what the state called a “critical medical staffing deficiency.”

Going forward, Olive View will transfer all babies who need ventilators for more than four hours, bringing them closer to meeting state requirements for a low-level neonatal intensive care unit.

“That’s a new decision that we’ve made for this interim period,” said John Schunhoff, interim director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. The facility is applying to regain mid-level neonatal intensive care unit status, he said.

However, babies already in the unit on ventilators will remain at Olive View, said Carol Meyer, the county department’s chief network officer.

Continued confusion about whether such patients can be properly cared for by the facility came the same day health officials told L.A. County supervisors that 11 of 15 neonatal intensive care unit nurses on the day shift admitted to getting manicures, having their eyebrows plucked or receiving other cosmetic services in the unit, and a nearby lounge.

Nurses were warned to stop more than a week before anonymous complaints were filed with a nonprofit agency that accredits the hospital, according to a confidential health department report reviewed by The Times.

“Staff were instructed of the following: ‘No eating in the NICU. No potlucks in the NICU, unless held in the official Break Room. No cooking in the NICU, unless warming your food in the microwave in the official Break room. No painting of fingers in the NICU. No plucking of eyebrows in the NICU.”

Hospital officials suspended a nursing supervisor and a registered nurse with pay May 4. All nurses involved said the beauty treatments were free and took place on breaks or after their shifts ended and when the room used in the neonatal intensive care unit was unoccupied, according to the report.

At Tuesday’s board meeting Supervisor Gloria Molina likened recent allegations made against Olive View — together with the hospital’s history of medical errors — to problems at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. That county-run facility closed its inpatient and emergency room services in 2007 after repeated findings of substandard care.

“All I can remember is that Martin Luther King started going down this track in the same way with these kinds of errors,” Molina said.

“There’s no excuse,” Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said of Olive View’s problems. “Those people responsible should be fired.”

After a closed-door meeting with top officials from Olive View and the Department of Health Services, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he and his colleagues were skeptical about statements made by hospital officials.

“There needs to be greater oversight by DHS management of what’s going on at Olive View and the rest of our hospitals,” he said.