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King/Drew Fallout Is Keenly Felt

As supervisors discuss impending funding loss, UCLA says it will pull some of its students.

September 26, 2006|Charles Ornstein, Steve Hymon and Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writers

The impending loss of federal funds at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center reverberated across the region Monday, as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors met in an emergency closed session to discuss the public hospital's fate.

UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine said it plans to begin shifting some of its medical students out of clinical rotations at King/Drew in an "orderly transition." About 50 third- and fourth-year students enrolled in a joint program with Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science will be transferred to UCLA-controlled hospitals to complete their instruction.

"The students receive their medical degree from UCLA, and our obligation is to those students to make sure they get the kind of education that they should be getting," UCLA spokeswoman Dale Tate said. The move does not affect medical residents at King/Drew.

Also Monday, the state Department of Health Services began surveying other hospitals that serve South Los Angeles to assess their ability to absorb King/Drew patients if the hospital were to close.

"We have some capacity, but it is limited," said Robert Fuller, chief operating officer of Downey Regional Medical Center. "If King/Drew were to really close, that would be the potential beginning of a disaster."

Meanwhile, community activists rallied outside the Willowbrook hospital, near Watts, to call for keeping it open. "To close this facility means our kids are welcome to die in the street," said Lita Herron, with the group Mothers on the March.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services notified King/Drew and county officials late Friday that the hospital did not pass an unannounced "make-or-break" inspection conducted this summer, failing to meet minimum standards in nine of 23 areas. As a result, it will lose $200 million a year in federal funding, nearly half of its budget.

The hospital has been out of compliance with federal rules since January 2004 for lapses in medical care that have repeatedly harmed and killed patients.

At Monday's 2 1/2 -hour meeting, county supervisors discussed legal options and contingency plans but came to no conclusion about what to do with the hospital in light of the funding cut. The supervisors will continue the discussion today.

Sources familiar with Monday's meeting said that several alternatives are being discussed. One option being seriously considered is to pare back services at King/Drew and operate it under the license of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, a larger county hospital near Torrance.

Another possibility would be to convert the hospital into an outpatient clinic and pay nearby private hospitals to handle inpatient stays for indigent county residents.

King/Drew will lose its Medicare provider status Nov. 30, but some funding will continue for another 30 days. The hospital also stands to lose Medi-Cal funding, which comes from both the state and the federal government.

"The county cannot afford to operate that hospital in its current configuration," said county Chief Administrative Officer David E. Janssen in a budget briefing Monday afternoon.

Supervisor Don Knabe described Monday's meeting as "mostly just information gathering." While there is a chance the county could appeal the federal decision, he said, supervisors must first determine "whether it's even worth appealing." An appeal would not stop the clock on the hospital's termination from Medicare.

"The whole goal is to save the hospital," Knabe said.

County health officials are expected to submit proposals on King/Drew's fate to the board within two weeks, Janssen said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he and his colleagues are moving quickly to create a "path forward."

"We have 65 days from today" until King/Drew loses its Medicare certification, he said. "We have virtually no time."

The federal government might agree to reinstate funding, Yaroslavsky said, but only if the hospital were completely restructured. "They want real reform, and I agree with that," he said. "They don't want King doctors in Harbor smocks."

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes King/Drew, issued a statement saying she was committed to providing health services to the community served by the hospital. Supervisor Gloria Molina said Saturday that she would support turning over the hospital to a private company as long as the new operators agreed to continue treating indigent patients. Supervisor Mike Antonovich declined to comment, with a spokesman saying he wanted more information.

Meanwhile, other officials expressed alarm at the possibility that King/Drew could close.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose constituents use the hospital, said she is particularly concerned about losing King/Drew in light of the announced closure of another emergency room -- at the Memorial Campus of Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center in Inglewood.

"There would be a huge, gaping, meteoric-sized hole that can't be filled," Perry said.

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