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'Killer King' and Its Defenders

How can we solve the problems at King/Drew hospital if the debate is mired in racial politics?

October 12, 2004|Joe R. Hicks and David A. Lehrer | Joe R. Hicks is the vice president of Community Advocates, a human relations organization based in Los Angeles. David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates.

For years, when casual discussion turned to issues related to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, many locals would roll their eyes and refer to the place as "Killer King." Word on the street was that its patients would all too often leave not for home but for the mortuary. Is this characterization fair when people often die in hospitals -- any and all hospitals?

Unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes. For starters, no other publicly funded hospital in the Los Angeles Basin has its accreditation hanging by a thread. The national Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations is threatening to deny accreditation to King/Drew.

The cause is more than street-corner anecdotes. There has been a pattern of problems at King/Drew, including reports of medication mix-ups, charges of undertrained and unsupervised nurses, claims of shaky business dealings and error-filled patient charts and employee records. Most troubling of all, there are reports that patients have been left unattended and, in some cases, that negligent care contributed to patient deaths.

Why have the county supervisors, who oversee the hospital, allowed these conditions to fester for years? Why have they only recently begun to act, voting to close the trauma center at King/Drew? Why hasn't Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who represents the Watts/Willowbrook area, which King/Drew serves, been kicking and screaming for years about such conditions?

Our suspicion is that supervisors deferred to Burke and feared that addressing the problems at King/Drew would be viewed as racially insensitive. Not a bad hunch, because black community activists for years have succeeded in making the hospital into racial turf, using race as a convenient bulwark against scrutiny whenever the hospital's practices were questioned.

King/Drew emerged out of the rubble of the 1965 Watts riots, and at first its constituents and staff were primarily black. But now the Watts/Willowbrook area has shifted from mostly black to majority brown, and Latinos, who increasingly compete for jobs and services at King/Drew, are resented by the hospital's original stakeholders. For their part, Latino activists, with their growing political clout, have hinted that they want to change the hospital's name to honor a Latino historical figure.

Amid such a hyper-racialized atmosphere, elected officials of all races should be a source of reason and objectivity. But some have thrown in with activists angrily opposing reform and the closing of the trauma center at King/Drew.

Playing leading roles at such rallies and protests have been U.S. House members Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Diane E. Watson (D-Los Angeles) and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson). The California Assembly has been represented at these gatherings by, among others, Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) and Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), along with Mayor James K. Hahn and his sister, L.A. City Council member Janice Hahn.

The participation of the Hahns is perhaps understandable. Their father, the revered Kenneth Hahn, made it possible for King/Drew to be built. The late county supervisor, however, would not have appreciated the comments of some speakers at the protests, notably those who publicly threatened that another riot might erupt if King/Drew services were curtailed or the hospital was closed. Elected officials stood by as these incendiary comments were made. In public testimony as well as the rhetoric at rallies, the overarching theme seems to be that some amorphous "they" wants to deprive poor black and brown people of the hospital.

But other elected officials, such as Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), have resisted the rush to block scrutiny of the hospital's practices. He agrees that the hospital is a badly needed community resource that must perform well. In fact, substandard performance cannot be excused or overlooked. The mostly poor people served by King/Drew should not be expected to settle for anything less than the same level of service and care available to any other community in the Southland.

The need for a well-run hospital in South Los Angeles is well documented. The King/Drew trauma center sees more gunshot victims than any other in the county, so many that the military has sent its medical personnel there to train in what it views as something close to combat conditions.

No sensible public official wants to close down the only hospital servicing the Watts/Willowbrook community. By temporarily shutting down the costly and labor-intensive trauma center, reforming the medical center's other troubled units and bringing its business practices in line, the hospital will be better able to focus on its primary functions and, ultimately, turn itself around. The Board of Supervisors, finally having found its backbone, can't weaken now.

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