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Burke Cools on Trauma Unit Vote

Following protests, the supervisor seeks to postpone board action that would close the facility at King/Drew Medical Center.

September 19, 2004|Steve Hymon and David Pierson | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke has proposed delaying a vote on the closure of the trauma unit at Martin Luther King Jr./Charles Drew Medical Center, backing away from her support for the shutdown after four days of protests from doctors and community leaders.

Late Friday afternoon, Burke filed a motion asking the board not to vote on the matter Tuesday and instead wait for hospital consultants, who have yet to be hired, to make recommendations on how to reform the foundering facility.

In the motion, posted on the board's website, Burke stated that "closing the trauma center at King/Drew Medical Center may not be the most appropriate response to the problems facing the hospital," and she proposed that "perhaps there are other clinical areas" at King/Drew that should instead be closed.

"She has been reluctant right from the first," Burke's spokeswoman, Glenda Wina, said Saturday. She said Burke initially went along with the decision on the recommendation of county health officials, who Burke believed were "the experts."

"If they said that this was the way to save King hospital, her first and foremost concern was to save King hospital," Wina said. "She has said it will close over her dead body, and she's not ready to go just yet."

Wina said that Burke had been swayed this past week primarily by the outcry from the community. As the week progressed, Burke concluded that the decision needed to be revisited because it had "come down the pike rather suddenly," Wina said.

The Willowbrook hospital, which operates the second-busiest trauma center in the county and the only public unit serving a wide swath of South Los Angeles, is in Burke's district.

The proposed shutdown initially drew the unanimous support of all five county supervisors.

Supervisors and county health officials said that closing the unit was not a matter of cost, but a last-ditch way to free up resources -- particularly doctors and nurses -- needed to fix myriad problems at King/Drew.

But the closure, which was to have taken effect in about three months, has been roundly criticized by politicians, community leaders, doctors and paramedics.

Some have suggested that critically injured patients would die because of longer travel times to other hospitals. Other hospitals have complained of the burden the shutdown would place on the county's already fraying trauma network.

King/Drew plays a key role in the county's healthcare system because of its location and policy of treating uninsured patients. Founded after the Watts riots, it has enormous symbolic significance to many in the largely minority and impoverished community it serves.

Burke's motion came days after she vowed not to succumb to political pressure against the closure.

At a news conference Monday, Burke said: "A great deal has been made of the fact that there's been political interference with the operation of that hospital. Write this down. If it's political interference, it's not coming from Yvonne Burke. As far as I'm concerned, we have to do what we have to do. We're going to make that hospital work."

Wina said Burke kept her pledge.

"I can say with great confidence that she was not succumbing to political pressure because she has been feeling strongly all along that that hospital needs to stay open," Wina said.

It was unclear Saturday whether Burke could muster a majority to postpone the trauma closure.

A spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he would stand by the board's decision to close the unit. Supervisors Don Knabe, Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky could not be reached for comment Saturday.

In the past, however, Los Angeles County supervisors usually have supported the decisions of colleagues in matters affecting their districts.

Outrage about the proposed trauma closure was apparent at an occasionally raucous news conference Friday at King/Drew -- not attended by Burke.

Many hospital supporters said that closing the trauma unit was a precursor to what many have long feared, the loss of the entire hospital.

"Before this hospital is closed we'll lay down and die with it," proclaimed "Sweet" Alice Harris, the founder and executive director of the community group Parents of Watts.

She paused, then added, "I'm ready to die." The crowd of about 250 cheered.

Harris said Saturday that she was relieved at Burke's apparent shift.

"This is the best news. I knew Supervisor Burke wouldn't let us down," said Harris, who said that she wept earlier in the week after learning that Burke supported closing the trauma unit.

"I didn't believe it. I don't know what caused her to sway that way. That wasn't her heart."

If the Board of Supervisors sides with Burke, it would mark the second time this year that the county has backed off on proposed changes at King/Drew in the face of community protest.

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