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Hospital overseer still has a mission

Chernof's job -- to save King-Harbor -- gets a new focus as the last patients are removed.

August 18, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Fifteen months ago, he was brought in to save Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, which had struggled for decades with patient-care problems.

But last Friday, Dr. Bruce Chernof presided over the shutdown of the much smaller entity it had become.

The public hospital, now known as Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, failed a critical federal inspection and was notified last week that it had lost $200 million in federal funding. Its emergency room was closed within hours.

Its 48 remaining inpatient beds are being emptied, and an estimated 48,000 patients -- the number who passed through King-Harbor's emergency room in the last year -- will have to turn elsewhere for care.

Chernof, as head of Los Angeles County's Department of Health Services, remains in the hot seat, facing questions about where King-Harbor patients will go, how medical staff will be shuffled and whether a private operator will take over the facility in Willowbrook, south of Watts. Finding answers won't be easy.

Those who know the 45-year-old Chernof say they expect him to retain his signature calm focus as the county faces a healthcare catastrophe likely to ignite fresh recriminations.

"To the extent that we all bear a share of the responsibility, Bruce does too, but he's not the reason this place failed," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said last week. "This is bigger than any one of us, and it's gone on much longer than most of us have been here. It's in the walls."

After Chernof was selected to replace Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, he brought sweeping change to the troubled hospital: He eliminated specialty services, reduced inpatient beds and placed the facility under the management of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance.

He also pledged to clean house among the King-Harbor staff, re-interviewing every employee who would be under Harbor-UCLA's oversight.

He received mostly high marks from the supervisors as well as from one key critic of the county: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). A staunch supporter of the hospital, Waters particularly disliked Garthwaite, who had tried to tighten hospital operations by advocating closure of the facility's trauma center. It shut down in 2005.

"Prior to Mr. Chernof's taking over, we had issues with the previous head of that department," Waters told supervisors at an emergency board meeting Monday. "But we found no issues with Mr. Chernof." He has "been very cooperative. He's engaged the community. We simply commend him for the job that he's done."

Yet during a June board meeting, supervisors had lambasted Chernof for providing what they described as overly optimistic updates on improvements at the hospital and for failing to train King-Harbor staff at Harbor-UCLA. County health officials said that there weren't enough medical personnel to send to Harbor-UCLA for education and also keep King-Harbor operating.

"I sometimes think that he paints the picture a little rosier than he should," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of the few officials to publicly criticize Chernof, even as she praised his hard work and "level head" in the midst of crisis.

"Sometimes I would like some of the hard, cold facts so that we can make the decisions we need to make," she said in an interview last week.

Contrary to supervisors' belief, county health officials "really didn't clean the slate" of problem employees, Supervisor Don Knabe said during Monday's meeting.

Kathy Ochoa, director of strategic initiatives for Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents many hospital workers, agreed.

"There was certainly a missed opportunity with the failure of Harbor-UCLA to step up and become more deeply engaged in the day-to-day operations of the hospital," Ochoa said.

After launching a nationwide search to replace Garthwaite, who had become a lightning rod for criticism from the supervisors and local activists fighting to save the hospital, the board promoted Chernof from his post as the county's senior medical director. Supervisors said they were impressed by the enthusiasm of the internist and were already familiar with his work.

A San Fernando Valley native, Chernof got his start in medicine tagging along on rounds with his father, Dr. David Chernof.

"That was a really important influence, to see what a difference one person could make in the lives of others," Chernof said of his dad, 71, who now lives in Santa Barbara.

Chernof arrived at the county's top medical job -- he oversees five public hospitals, 20,000 employees and a $3.2-billion budget -- with a hefty resume. The West Los Angeles resident had created a family health program for private healthcare provider Health Net; helped establish a healthcare system for uninsured patients in the Valley while a medical director at the county's Olive View-UCLA Medical Center; and helped run a program at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine, of which he is a graduate. The program allows students to earn both a medical degree and a master's in business administration.

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