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Stories differ in patient's `dumping'

LAPD and shelter officials dispute parts of a hospital's explanation for how a paraplegic homeless man was left in a gutter on skid row.

February 10, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, accused by authorities in at least two incidents of dumping homeless patients, said Friday that its own preliminary investigation into why a hospital-hired van left a paraplegic man on a skid row street this week found that the actions were not in keeping with hospital policy.

The hospital offered its own account of how the patient ended up on skid row Thursday, but the Los Angeles Police Department and a homeless-shelter official disputed key portions of the explanation.

Meanwhile, the city attorney's office said it is expanding its ongoing investigation of the hospital, which has previously been accused of dumping homeless patients, to include the Thursday incident, which was met Friday with widespread disgust and outrage from civic leaders.

"This is obviously shameless," said City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, whose office criminally charged Kaiser hospitals three months ago in a similar dumping case. "We were thinking the hospitals in this city had gotten the message," he added. "They continue to flout the law."

The hospital said it had no explanation for why the van driver allegedly ignored the cries of onlookers to help the 41-year-old man and instead proceeded to apply makeup and perfume before driving off, leaving the man in a gutter.

The hospital, which has hired the crisis firm Sitrick and Co. to help it through a storm of criticism, said the van driver worked for Empire Enterprise Inc., a company contracted by the hospital.

"The gravity of this case is extreme," said hospital spokesman Dan Springer. "There is no doubt that the appearance of what took place is not pleasant. And the hospital is going to work diligently to make sure we get to the bottom of exactly what happened."

The practice has plagued downtown for years, but in the last two years, several hospitals and law enforcement agencies have been directly accused of dumping homeless patients on the streets of skid row without bringing them to a mission or service provider.

Thursday's incident was witnessed by more than two dozen people. Police called it a particularly egregious example.

Witnesses told police that the paraplegic man -- who wore a soiled hospital gown and had a broken colostomy bag and no wheelchair or walker -- propped himself up in the door of the van, then hurled himself from the vehicle, tumbling to the street. He pulled himself along, dragging a bag of his belongings in his clenched teeth, until he was rescued from the gutter about 11 that morning and taken to County USC Medical Center.

Springer said the hospital's preliminary investigation showed that a hospital ambulance had tried to take the man early in the morning to the Midnight Mission, which he had listed on hospital forms as his home address. But Springer said the ambulance was turned away because there was no room at the mission.

The man was returned to the hospital's emergency room, Springer said; after a shift change, new personnel tried to take the man to his listed address in the van. Springer said he did not know whether those personnel knew of the previous attempt or that the address was a mission.

But Springer said that on the second attempt, when the van neared the mission, the man "asked the driver to open the door and let him out.... He assured the driver that his wheelchair was at his home and that he could propel himself to his home from the park."

That explanation contradicts police accounts from Thursday.

LAPD Officer Eric de la Cruz said he asked the man if he had requested to be dropped off at the location.

"He said he had nowhere else to go, and the hospital staff told him he could no longer stay there," De la Cruz said.

De La Cruz's commander, Capt. Andrew Smith of the LAPD's Central Division, said the man appeared to be "confused and disoriented" when police encountered him.

"I am not sure what this hospital's policies are, but the end result was outrageous, even to homeless individuals who have seen everything out on the streets," Smith said.

Orlando Ward, a spokesman for the Midnight Mission, disputed another part of the hospital's account Friday. He said a review of security tapes and interviews with staff showed that the patient was brought to the mission around 1 a.m. Thursday on a gurney by two ambulance attendants. Mission staff members asked the attendants for after-care instructions for the patient, who had no wheelchair, and after that discussion the attendants decided to return the man to the hospital. Ward also said no one was turned away from the mission this week.

Ward said mission officials had been working with the Hospital Assn. of Southern California to develop a universal form for hospitals to use when referring homeless patients to shelters.

"The case managers here get the details and sign it and fax it back before the person is transported," he said. "That obviously did not happen in that case."

Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, acknowledged Friday that "this one slipped through the cracks."

Lott said Hollywood Presbyterian had "very strong protocols" in place guiding the release of homeless patients but it was evident they had not been not followed in this case.

"We aren't making any excuses for it," he said.

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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