After flunking the state medical licensing test for the third time, the pathologist selected as Los Angeles County's new coroner has lost the job, forcing the nation's most populous county to continue its frustrating 1 1/2-year search for a medical examiner.
Dr. Yong-Myun Rho, a former deputy New York City medical examiner, failed the test by one point in his third try to become licensed in California, officials confirmed. The county had given Rho until the end of the year to pass the exam or lose the job.
Rho was selected last March for the $150,000-a-year post after the board's first choice, the coroner of Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, turned down the post, citing Los Angeles' high housing costs. Rho could not be reached for comment.
Rho's failure to pass the test forces the Board of Supervisors to make a third choice.
"The board may elect to initiate a new recruitment effort or select one of the remaining eligible applicants that your board interviewed," Richard B. Dixon, the county's chief administrative officer, said in a confidential memo to the supervisors.
Passed over for the job but now back on the list are J. Lawrence Cogan, Los Angeles County's acting medical examiner, and Elliot Gross, a forensic pathologist for Indiana's Lake County who lost his job as New York City's chief medical examiner amid allegations of mismanagement.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he has recommended that Cogan, 47, a 14-year veteran of the Los Angeles County coroner's office, get the job. Cogan could not be reached for comment.
The supervisors are scheduled to take up the matter in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, Dixon said.
"It certainly has been a frustrating and disappointing experience," he added. "On the other hand, our Department of Coroner has been doing an increasingly good job."
The county has been searching for a new coroner since hiring an executive recruiter in July, 1990, to conduct a nationwide search. There were about two dozen applicants for the job.
The Los Angeles County coroner's office, one of the busiest in the nation, last year investigated 18,068 suspicious or violent deaths, including 2,401 possible homicides.
The office was run until 1982 by Thomas T. Noguchi, the flamboyant self-styled "coroner to the stars" who lost the job after he was accused of poor management. The next coroner, Ronald Kornblum, resigned in July, 1990, after an audit showed management deficiencies, failure to maintain sanitary standards and inadequate protection of personal property.
Because of problems in the office, the supervisors in 1990 divided management of the coroner's office, vesting medical decisions with a pathologist and administrative matters with a professional manager. Ilona Lewis is the director of the Department of Coroner.
The divided office is one reason pathologists have not been eager to apply for the Los Angeles County job, according to San Diego County's medical examiner, Dr. Brian Blackbourne. There are an estimated 600 forensic pathologists in the United States.
"They took the department head job away from the doctor," Blackbourne said, noting that the Los Angeles County medical examiner must check with the department manager on such administrative matters as equipment purchases and staffing.
"They're not going to attract any of the well-qualified people in the United States under those ground rules," he added.
One applicant told The Times that he withdrew from consideration because he was angry that county officials would not allow him to tour the coroner's office.
Another big-city coroner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Los Angeles' high cost of housing remains a problem.
County Supervisor Ed Edelman said he was undecided whether the county should begin a new nationwide search or select a previous applicant.
"It's been a long, disappointing process," Edelman said.
Supervisor Kenneth Hahn said he believes there are good candidates on the county staff but did not commit to anyone.
Rho has quit his job as deputy chief medical examiner supervising the borough of Queens, according to officials in New York.
Rho, a licensed physician in New York, was required by the County Charter to get a California medical license before he could begin the Los Angeles job.
When Rho first failed the test in July with a grade of 66--nine points short of passing--county officials insisted that mark did not reflect Rho's competence as a forensic pathologist.
They pointed out that Rho, who received his medical degree in 1955 from Seoul National University in South Korea, was required to take a general medical exam, including questions on obstetrics and pediatrics, more than 30 years after finishing medical school.
He took the test again in September and December, but failed both times by one point.
Janie Cordray, information officer for the California Medical Board, said pathologists have difficulty passing the test because they generally begin practicing their specialty right out of medical school. "They go right to corpses and don't deal with live people" unlike most other doctors who spend time in a hospital practicing general medicine, she said.