King/Drew to Shut Down Trauma Unit

Times Staff Writers

Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, Los Angeles County’s foundering public hospital, will move to shut its prized trauma unit and hire outside turnaround experts in the biggest overhaul in its 32-year history, health officials announced today.

The moves amount to a salvage effort for a hospital whose lapses have killed or imperiled patients repeatedly, especially in the past year.

They also are an acknowledgment of failure on the part of the county’s supervisors and health department to adequately address clearly identified and long-standing problems in such basic areas as nursing and oversight of doctor trainees.

Supervisor Michael Antonovich deemed the county’s efforts to fix King/Drew over the past eight months “pathetic.”

“This took so many losses of life and inferior patient treatment to bring us to where we are today,” Antonovich said at a press conference today to announce the closure and an agreement with federal health

The proposal to shut the hospital’s trauma unit is to be considered for final approval by supervisors at a public hearing next week. But it already has ignited furor in a community that heavily depends on the service and to further fray the county’s emergency services.

The closure is expected to take effect in the next three months, officials said.

“Closing down a [trauma center] within a couple miles of the most violent parts of the city? South Los Angeles? Compton? Lynwood?” asked Sal LaBarbera, homicide supervisor in LAPD’s Southeast area station, which covers Watts. “This will definitely have an impact on how many lives are saved...Harbor is an extra 10 or 15 minutes.”

The action would not affect the roughly 45,000 visits to King/Drew’s emergency room every year for such problems as chest pain, infections and headaches. The trauma unit serves patients with more severe injuries such as gunshot and stab wounds or car accidents.

Federal officials, who have repeatedly threatened the hospital with sanctions over the past eight months, today said they are entering an unusual contract with the county to break the cycle of failures at King/Drew.

“We began to see a trend develop,” said Jeff Flick, regional administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “Even as one fire is put out, another fire gets started.”

As part of the one-year contract, the county must hire a team of outside experts to run the hospital and revamp its operations. During this time period, the county must file progress reports to federal health officials every 60 days and face sanctions if problems are found, Flick said.

“We will not relinquish any of our authority,” he said. “If we encounter a serious problem at that hospital, we will bring to [bear] all of the regulatory power that we have.”

Times Staff Writers Jill Leovy and Mitchell Landsberg contributed to this story.