THE MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr./Drew Medical Center is about to undergo a federal review that will determine its fate. Should it fail the test, expected in the next few weeks, the hospital could close. There are some hopeful signs that it won't come to that -- but it's not too early to begin planning for the possibility.
Over the last two years, the county-owned facility has been the subject of well-deserved scrutiny. A yearlong investigation by The Times found patients dying needlessly -- and a hospital staff that didn't see that as a problem. It has been that way for decades, as promises of reform too often have been followed instead by more medical errors and neglect.
There is some reason for hope that King/Drew has made enough recent improvements to pass muster with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Communication and accountability at all levels are improving. A Times report last week showed that more than one-fifth of the staff has been fired or disciplined since January 2004; while some of those cases were surely embarrassing, they indicate that hospital administrators are trying to root out problems.
The dismally managed Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science also has increased oversight of its medical residency programs.
It is too early to know for sure, but Antionette Smith Epps, King/Drew's new chief executive, also appears to have been a good choice. In the three months she has been on the job, Epps has brought the no-nonsense management style required to tackle incompetence head-on.
Nonetheless, several key problems remain, and the hospital is in a very precarious position. Notably, the nursing staff is woefully inexperienced, with nearly half of it temporary -- more than twice the industry average. And worrisome deficiencies linger concerning medication delivery and how quickly patients move from one department, such as the emergency room, to another, such as the ICU.
If the review determines that King/Drew still does not meet basic requirements, the feds could pull $200 million in funding -- half of the hospital's budget. If that happens, the center could close.
The only other viable option would be to hand it over to a private hospital company. Contrary to doomsday predictions, several bidders have expressed interest in the Watts facilities in recent months. That is welcome news, and the Board of Supervisors should seriously consider such offers. A prerequisite for any new owner is the ability to meet the diverse medical needs of the communities that surround the hospital.
The best outcome for King/Drew, however, would be to pass the review and continue with reform. Failure would be a painful ordeal that would lead to still more finger-pointing, much of it at the Board of Supervisors.
The board should take the time now for a sober look at what to do if King/Drew fails.