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A Better System for Rape Victims

October 09, 1987

Hospital and government officials are sorting out the problems that led some hospitals to refuse to examine rape victims, but they must move faster. In parts of Los Angeles County, women are still paying for a breakdown in the system with their own time and trauma. Hospitals that still accept victims under new state rules are doing more than a fair share.

During the summer, about 15 private hospitals started turning away victims after the state began requiring more detailed examinations in order to collect stronger evidence for prosecuting rapists. The hospitals gave as a reason inadequate reimbursement for the exams or lack of staff expertise. The 1985 law allowed them to refer victims else-where if they felt they could not adequately perform the exams--an option on which the California Hospital Assn. insisted when the bill was enacted.

Hospital and city officials are talking about raising the reimbursement that the Los Angeles Police Department now makes for examinations in the city. The department now contributes $16 toward a bill that routinely runs more than $400. The hospitals want the department to pay $400 for the exams, an increase that could add as much as $800,000 to the city budget. Los Angeles needs to pay more than $16, but hospitals also have some obligation to meet government halfway--at least until a permanent solution is found. The city government also should take the lead in facing up to higher bills, if only to avoid a situation in which governments wait for someone else to move first.

Ultimately the best answer for victims, hospitals and governments may be to create rape counseling and treatment centers, like one in Santa Monica, at numerous locations around the county. Given the difficulty in financing the trauma centers, that best answer may be a long time in coming, but city and county officials should not just abandon it.

Meanwhile, half a dozen hospitals have resumed the evidence-gathering exams, another half-dozen have not, and others still are trying to decide what to do. Northridge Hospital resumed the exams, as did Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance. The Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center has agreed to provide training that the Torrance hospital says its staff must have.

James C. Lester, president of Little Company of Mary, urged other hospitals to resume accepting these patients. "If other hospitals do not participate in the system, it places an immense burden on the patients" and on the hospitals that do accept the victims. For example, the Santa Monica center still accepts more rape victims than it is equipped to handle because several hospitals in Inglewood have been turning victims away. In a four-day period in which the Santa Monica Center would normally see 6 or 8 victims, it had 21.

During the maneuvering to find long-term solutions, negotiators must never lose sight of the reason they are trying to solve the problem--victims of rape. A Los Angeles County sheriff's investigator cited a case in which a woman who normally would have been taken to Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood had to make the longer trip to Santa Monica. "That ties up a unit for hours at a time," the investigator said, "and the overworked staff may not do the most complete job it can do." And the rape victim is victimized by a system that still does not show sufficient concern.

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