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Psych patient hurts self at King-Harbor

She apparently used a scalpel she had with her from another hospital. The injuries weren't life-threatening. The federal survey goes on.

July 25, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

In the midst of a critical federal inspection at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, a psychiatric patient awaiting evaluation injured herself with what appeared to be a scalpel in the emergency room bathroom early Tuesday, county officials said.

The woman apparently brought the scalpel with her from County-USC Medical Center, which she visited last week, according to an internal memo from the county health chief to the Board of Supervisors.

Concealed in her belongings, the scalpel -- one official said he heard it was more like a skin-shaving tool than a surgical knife -- could have been missed by King-Harbor hospital metal detectors.

The woman's injuries were not the result of a suicide attempt and were not life-threatening, said Lt. Michael Rich with the health services bureau of the Los Angeles County police.

The incident occurred about 4 a.m., according to an internal county memo, and was not considered criminal in nature, Rich said. Nurses notified county police several hours later and attempted to give them the scalpel, Rich said. According to the county memo, medical staff photographed the instrument. County police instructed medical employees to keep it for proper disposal, Rich said.

"There's an investigation going on; until that is complete I'm not going to speculate" on the details of what happened, said county health chief Dr. Bruce Chernof.

Hospital employees reported the incident to state regulators, Chernof said.

State health regulators are aware of the incident and are investigating, said Suanne Buggy, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health.

In the meantime, the beleaguered hospital's federal evaluation "will continue as they've structured it," Chernof said. "All hospitals face challenges; when incidents happen, they need to be handled and reported appropriately -- and the hospital has taken those steps."

The incident comes as the hospital faces a crucial weeklong review by surveyors from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

If King-Harbor, in Willowbrook near Watts, flunks the inspection it will lose $200 million in federal funding, about half its budget.

County supervisors have said loss of the money would force the hospital to close.

The agency is scheduled to announce its findings before Aug. 15.

Previously known as Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center before it was put under the oversight of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance, the hospital has a history of lapses in patient care, including two high-profile incidents earlier this year, and has struggled to meet federal standards.

County health officials have drafted contingency plans to reroute patients to other hospitals and search for a private entity to run the hospital if King-Harbor is closed.

Also Tuesday, Chernof outlined the Department of Health Services' policy for handling media requests seeking access to county hospitals in response to questions raised by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

The issue arose after Times reporters were ordered off the King-Harbor premises after attempting to interview people in the hospital's public areas.

Reporters and photographers may not enter county hospitals unescorted, Chernof said, and must arrange such visits with the health department in advance. Before interviewing a person receiving medical care, journalists must also receive permission from physician and patient, in addition to a signed consent form from the patient.

"We treat the hospitals as areas where privacy comes first," Chernof told the board.

"We believe that the policies set forth reasonable parameters and therefore are not unreasonably interfering with the 1st Amendment rights of the reporters," senior assistant county counsel Leela Kapur said.

susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com

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