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Angry Supervisors Berate King/Drew Chief

Officials threaten to sever a contract with the medical school unless standards are raised.

August 11, 2004|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County supervisors erupted in frustration Tuesday over a lack of progress at the troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center and issued their strongest threat yet to its affiliated medical school.

The board excoriated the county's director of health services, Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, and said it would sever the county's contract with Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science unless provisions were included to ensure that the school would maintain higher standards.

"I want to give them a chance, but under this ... agreement, I don't think they deserve a chance," said Supervisor Gloria Molina.

The school operates doctor training programs at the hospital, which relies heavily on trainees.

Supervisors also demanded, in unusually blunt language, that Garthwaite hire new leadership at King/Drew hospital and fix the myriad problems plaguing the county-run facility.

"Somebody really has to get on the ball here," said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who represents the area just south of Watts where the hospital and university are located. King/Drew serves a largely minority population that is among the poorest in the county.

Supervisors complained that salaries and staffing levels at King/Drew were far higher than those at other county hospitals, and suggested that both be cut.

Garthwaite, who appeared stunned by the onslaught, defended the contract with Drew University, but said little in response to criticisms about the hospital.

When Burke demanded to know when he would hire a new hospital administrator, filling a position that has been vacant for months, Garthwaite would only say, "We're working with a headhunter group to identify candidates now."

Several answers like that led Molina to explode. "Everything is 'in process,' " she said. "Everything is, 'We're going to do this, we're going to do that.' ... Every time we ask for accountability, it's somewhere in the future."

King/Drew has lurched from crisis to crisis for years, but has endured perhaps its worst ordeal over the last eight months. Regulators have found five cases in which patients died after apparent errors were made in their treatment, and have released a series of sharply critical reports.

The latest, from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, found a plethora of nonfatal but highly disturbing shortcomings.

Drew University, meanwhile, has lost accreditation to run three vital programs at the hospital, and has been forced to close two of them. Its neonatal-perinatal program is scheduled to close in June.

Garthwaite and other officials with the county's Department of Health Services have been negotiating with Drew for more than seven months to reach agreement on a new contract before the existing one expires Aug. 31.

Garthwaite seemed taken aback Tuesday by the ferocity of the supervisors' reaction to the new contract he had proposed. Supervisor Mike Antonovich said it failed to add provisions that would hold the university accountable for its programs.

Garthwaite said that it did include provisions to hold the university more accountable and would actually save the county money.

The supervisors ultimately agreed to extend the current contract until Sept. 28, and threatened to sever the county's relationship with Drew if they are not satisfied.

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