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The King/Drew syndrome

It's a familiar pattern for African Americans: A community loses a vital resource and is just supposed to make the best of it.

September 27, 2006|ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

IT'S ENOUGH TO make anyone believe in conspiracy theories. After surviving repeated rounds of bad press for 20 years, King/Drew Medical Center was finally knocked out in 2004 by a series of articles in this newspaper. According to the series, King/Drew was so frighteningly incompetent for so long, it hardly deserved to have been called a hospital at all.

And the evildoers at the heart of this incompetence? They were not the county supervisors, who own King/Drew and looked the other way as it descended into the maelstrom. They were all those black people who were foolish enough to think that they could run a hospital in the first place. Yes, we got what we had coming -- the expose had enough charlatans, hustlers, liars, layabouts and nincompoops to star in an updated version of "Birth of a Nation."

I knew there were problems at King/Drew, big problems, potentially fatal problems that should have been dealt with from the beginning. But I didn't believe that was all there was to the place. And I certainly didn't believe that the solution to its problems -- and the problems of the poor, severely health-challenged population it serves -- was to lop off the parts of King/Drew that were actually working.

The trauma center was one such part, a highly specialized emergency unit that, despite the fact it treated a discomfiting number of gunshot victims, was a point of community pride. It was eliminated last year after county officials said they had no choice but to make cuts to stabilize King/Drew and to reallocate precious resources. We feel your pain, officials told the legions of protesters who rallied in the streets of Watts back then, but it will be worth it. It's the only way.

As Redd Foxx once inimitably said, we was robbed. After King/Drew flunked a federal inspection in August, Medicare officials told the county last week that the center will lose half its annual budget. King/Drew is now closer to the grave than it has ever been.

In the last two years, the county has paid millions of dollars to turnaround outfits such as Navigant and has purged staff who many called obstructionist or dead-weight -- and still no progress. Problems amassed over 30 years cannot be redressed in two, but a county government with 10 million constituents and that oversees complex networks of public services on a daily basis should be able to get it together enough to keep afloat a single 252-bed hospital. Is it that the county is as hopeless as King/Drew is alleged to be? Or are federal inspectors being more exacting than usual because this is King/Drew, after all, the hospital from hell that ran a game on everybody and must now be shown no mercy?

BUT THE enormous, racially tinged antipathy toward King/Drew that has built up over the last few years cannot be allowed to blind us to the fact that the surrounding community needs a full-service hospital today even more than it did when King/Drew opened in 1972. To close King/Drew -- or privatize it, or downsize it into a clinic -- is to accept a pattern of deficiency that has prevailed so long in African American communities, we can't imagine any other.

That pattern works like this: Something important or meaningful is cut or closed down. People loudly protest its loss. But the deal goes down anyway, and the community is told to make the best of a bad situation, to make do with what's left. That pattern is prevailing not just in Watts and Willowbrook but in other neighborhoods with similar demographics. Memorial Hospital in Inglewood recently announced that it is closing its emergency room, not because of any malfeasance or incompetence but because of money. It costs too much. That is, it's a deficit.

At a Monday town hall meeting convened at King/Drew by Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson), anger and frustration about yet another impending loss frequently boiled over. It wasn't just the hospital that was at stake for the mostly black crowd but everything it stands for -- all of which feels in ever shorter supply these days: institutional control, self-determination, a place at the table. People told stories of all that had gone right at King, of all the lives it had saved.

But the polarizing question of whether to hew to the past or focus on the future -- deconstruct what has gone wrong or, once again, make the best of a bad situation -- created a tension that was almost unbearable. And I realized it is that tension, more than any conspiracy or county shenanigans, that will undo black folks in the end.


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