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Drew faces loss of crucial approval

Accreditation council's move against the medical university is tied to its affiliated hospital's impending loss of Medicare funding.

October 27, 2006|Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber | Times Staff Writers

The national accrediting body for doctor training programs has taken the first step toward pulling its approval from Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, one of a handful of historically black medical schools in the nation.

The action, made public Thursday, was a direct result of the failures of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, a hospital in Willowbrook long affiliated with the school.

It came as Drew University was making strong progress toward turning itself around.

In a stern letter to Dr. Nancy Hanna, the associate dean in charge of graduate medical education at Drew, the Chicago-based Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education announced that it was proposing to revoke the school's accreditation because of what it termed a "catastrophic event": King/Drew's impending loss of Medicare funding.

That loss left Drew University with "no primary teaching site" recognized by an outside agency, the letter said.

A loss of accreditation would make it impossible for Drew to train physician specialists at the school, which is dedicated to serving disadvantaged minority communities.

Los Angeles County officials are planning to convert King/Drew into a community hospital under the management of Harbor/UCLA Medical Center, also county-run.

Drew University, located across the street from the hospital, is a private school under contract with the county to train physician specialists, called residents, at King/Drew.

Both institutions were created to help heal the wounds of the 1965 Watts riots, which focused attention on the lack of accessible medical care for residents of South Los Angeles, then predominantly African American. And both are held dear by many residents of the area, especially those who remember what life was like before they existed.

Although its faculty and students are quite racially and ethnically diverse, Drew is the only medical school in the western United States that carries the federal designation of being a historically black college.

Drew will have until Jan. 5 to appeal the proposed ruling, and its new president, Susan Kelly, said she hoped the decision could be reversed.

But the accreditation council is known for being resolute in such matters.

"We have two months to do this," Kelly said in an interview. "We'll use every day of it, and I think we'll prevail."

She said she hoped to arrange for other hospitals to help train the school's 251 residents.

She called on county officials to quickly commit to continue funding the existing residents.

"We've been really heartened by the number of hospitals that have said, 'We're really interested in partnering with you, but we need to know that these residents will be paid,' " she said. "We have been asking [the county] for that for at least 10 days."

Dr. Bruce Chernof, the county's health director, declined to comment. A spokesman said he hadn't seen the accreditors' letter.

Bart Williams, chairman of Drew's board of trustees, said that even if alternative hospitals were found for the residents, they would probably not be in medically underserved communities and the residents would be less likely to establish practices there after their training.

A 2005 study showed that Drew residents, unlike many of their counterparts elsewhere, overwhelmingly intended to practice among the underserved.

Sylvia Drew Ivie, a health consultant with deep ties to the university, said the proposed withdrawal of accreditation was not entirely unexpected.

"You can't have a training program without a training hospital," said Ivie, the daughter of the late Dr. Charles R. Drew, a trailblazing African American physician for whom the university is named.

However, Ivie said she thought the council was being unreasonable in suggesting that Drew bore responsibility for King/Drew's failings. She noted that Drew does not have a role in running the hospital.

Drew has not been without troubles of its own. Three training programs -- radiology, surgery and neonatology -- have been shut down in recent years because of problems found by the accrediting agency. In addition, the school's orthopedics program has been on probation. Dr. David Satcher, a former surgeon general of the United States, sharply criticized the school in 2003, saying it needed a new "culture of accountability."

Since then, Drew has substantially reformed itself.

Weeks after the Satcher report, the school jettisoned its president and over the ensuing months dismissed nearly two-thirds of its board of trustees.

It has since brought a number of respected leaders in medicine onto its board and had been planning ambitious changes under Kelly, who took over in May but was formally installed as president about two weeks ago.

The council announced in April that it was renewing Drew's accreditation after a favorable review.

That, however, was before King/Drew was told that it would be losing its funding from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

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