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Medical Center Faces New Woes

The U.S. is probing St. Vincent over its closed liver transplant program. The hospital is also losing money and laying off 8% of its staff.

April 27, 2006|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

St. Vincent Medical Center is caught in a new round of troubles, acknowledging this week that it faces a federal investigation related to its now-closed liver transplant program and that it has given pink slips to nearly 100 employees -- about 8% of its staff.

The hospital said in a statement that it is "fully complying" with a subpoena received earlier this year from the U.S. attorney's office, which is looking into possible criminal activity in the liver program.

The program was halted in September after officials admitted that in 2003 its doctors improperly arranged for a liver transplant to a Saudi Arabian national using an organ intended for a higher-priority St. Vincent patient. Staff members then falsified records to cover the situation up, officials have said.

A spokesman for the 347-bed hospital declined to comment further on the investigation, as did a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.

St. Vincent, the oldest hospital in Los Angeles, is also facing a financial crisis. It lost $12.2 million in the last fiscal year and more than $15 million in the first eight months of this one, according to a March 29 report from Standard & Poor's.

The medical center said the 97 people given 60-day layoff notices Monday included managers and support staff. Nurses were not included in the cuts, because of a widespread nursing shortage in Southern California.

"The reduction in force is part of a wide-ranging plan to strengthen the hospital's finances and ensure that St. Vincent Medical Center can carry out its mission to serve the sick and the poor in a changing and challenging healthcare environment," the hospital said in a second statement.

The hospital has been losing patients for several years, and doctors are also staying away, the Standard & Poor's report said. These problems only worsened with the revelations about the liver transplant program.

St. Vincent is not the only hospital in Southern California under investigation for transplant irregularities. The FBI and the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are looking into possible fraudulent billing related to UCI Medical Center's liver transplant program. UC Irvine shut the program down in November.

But this year was supposed to be one of celebration for St. Vincent, which is marking its 150th anniversary.

The transplant scandal and its aftermath have largely overshadowed the milestone.

In December, The Times reported that kidney transplant patients at St. Vincent died at a higher-than-expected rate over the last several years. The hospital's program was one of only four in the United States whose death rate was consistently higher than expected for patients between 1999 and 2004.

That same month, the medical center replaced its chief executive, Gus Valdespino, who cited "philosophical differences" over strategy and finances with the Daughters of Charity Health System, St. Vincent's parent company. In February, the hospital's chief financial officer left.

In March, the national organization that regulates organ transplants handed St. Vincent the agency's first public sanction. The action by the United Network for Organ Sharing did not prevent St. Vincent from performing other organ transplants, adding patients to its waiting lists or providing follow-up care.

Instead, the medical center had to notify about 4,000 patients of the punishment, which officially designates the hospital a "member not in good standing." Hospital officials were also barred from serving on the network's board or its committees and cannot take part in votes within the organization.

St. Vincent has said it will challenge the sanction in court.

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