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Health Director Confronts Racial Disparity

Diversity: L.A. County has been far too slow in increasing the hiring and promotion of Latinos, critics say. Much of the attention is focused on Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

February 18, 1996|JEFFREY L. RABIN and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As if the enormous financial problems facing the nation's second largest public health care system weren't enough to deal with, Los Angeles County's new health services director has been thrust into the middle of a long simmering legal and political battle over the racial makeup of his department's work force.

Pressed by a recent county Civil Service Commission decision--and under the watchful eye of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--Mark Finucane vowed to confront the emotionally charged issue of diversifying a work force that does not reflect the county's changing racial makeup.

More than three years after the EEOC directed the county to increase the recruitment, hiring and promotion of Latinos in the health department, Finucane has pledged to create and co-chair a task force on diversity in a health system where Latinos have long been underrepresented.

Finucane, backed by the Board of Supervisors, has said he is dedicated to "diversifying the work force of the health services department not just from a numbers standpoint, but from a power standpoint."

But critics say the county has been far too slow in meeting the goal of its September 1992 agreement with the federal government.

In the lengthy agreement, settling long-standing allegations of discrimination, the health department denied discriminating against Latinos, but promised to expand its recruitment, hiring and promotion efforts.

At the end of last year, the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Assn. asked the federal agency to extend the agreement, which expires this month, because of "the county's failure to make a good faith effort" to comply with it.

"They have made no effort to promote Latinos," said Gil Moreno, the union's chief counsel and general manager. "You just connect the dots, and there is a picture of willful noncompliance."

Finucane said his goal is to make the $2.3-billion health system and its sprawling network of hospitals, health centers and community clinics more representative of the county as a whole.

"Obviously, right now, that suggests Latinos," Finucane said. "In eight years, it may be a different group."

County documents show that at the end of last year, Latinos were underrepresented and African Americans were significantly overrepresented in the department's full-time work force of nearly 21,000 employees.

While Latinos are 34.6% of the county's civilian labor force, they represent 25.4% of the health department's full-time staff. By contrast, African Americans make up just under 10% of the labor force, but more than a third of the health department's full-time employees.

Before Finucane agreed to take the top health department job, he said he was warned that he inevitably would face a wrenching problem that "no one has ever dealt with--the underlying tension that changing population is causing in the health care system. . . . If we don't deal with this underlying tension, it will cripple the department's effectiveness," he said.

As an outsider, Finucane knew that the long avoided issue of racial discrimination--especially at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center--could not be ignored any longer.

*

His second day on the job, Jan. 17, the county's Civil Service Commission affirmed a hearing officer's sweeping conclusion that the hospital and affiliated medical school near Watts has an "unwritten policy of maintaining itself as a black institution and of placing black candidates in positions of leadership . . . to the exclusion of nonblacks."

The commission concluded that an Indian doctor was discriminated against after being passed over for the post of chairman of the hospital's troubled emergency department.

The question facing the supervisors this month was whether to appeal the commission's decision in court.

But the overriding issue has been the hospital's failure to adapt to the rapidly changing character of the communities it serves, which have been transformed from almost exclusively African American enclaves in the 1960s by repeated waves of Latin American immigration.

In a private conference room far from public view, Finucane made a passionate argument that the county must confront the racial issue head-on and not appeal the discrimination case. The four supervisors on hand took his advice.

*

It would send the wrong message to appeal the finding of discrimination, Finucane said. Rather than fighting old battles anew, it was time to move on.

Finucane said in the interview that he had hoped the issue wouldn't be elevated to his A-list in his first year. Instead, it ended up there his first week.

"It was a ball that was pitched at me earlier than I would have liked. I could just not afford to wait," Finucane said.

"Any successful health care organization has to reflect the population it's targeting," he said. "We're going to reflect it in the diversity of our employees, the populations we serve," not just at "Martin Luther King hospital, but throughout our work force and in every program we operate."

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