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Close King-Harbor

Enough warnings and last chances. Shutter the county hospital that has become a danger to its patients.

June 24, 2007

MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.-Harbor Hospital's history has been its saving grace and, perhaps, its curse. Born in promise as a response to the neglect that helped spark the 1965 Watts riots, the hospital became an institution focused more on the interests of staff than the safety of patients. Its value as a symbol kept it alive when any other hospital providing the same abominable level of service would have been shuttered as a menace to the public welfare. It remains a symbol, but now one of lethal ineptitude and indifference. It should be closed.

The county runs hospitals to provide medical care to millions of people who otherwise might go without. But it has established that it can't run this one. The Board of Supervisors must not waste its time, the public's money and patients' lives on efforts to fix King-Harbor, and the board members should not make contingency plans in case federal funding or the state license is pulled. They should act immediately to protect patients and then shut the doors.

We recommend that course with a heavy heart. So drastic an action, with such negative consequences for a swath of county residents who already have far too few choices, cannot be based merely on anecdote or emotion. But the most recent stories underscore the county's continuing failure to adequately serve this community and the futility of attempting further repairs.

As reported by Times staff writer Charles Ornstein and other reporters, Edith Isabel Rodriguez, a 43-year-old mother of three, spent her final hours ostensibly in the care of King-Harbor. Suffering from abdominal pain, she was left by county police in the emergency room lobby, where the nurse told her there was nothing the hospital could do for her. From her wheelchair, Rodriguez fell to the floor. She writhed in pain for 45 minutes. A janitor cleaned around her. Her boyfriend arrived but could get no one -- nurses, police -- to help. He called 911. The dispatcher told him that no one could come to Rodriguez's aid because she was already in the hospital.

If only Rodriguez's story were unique. Instead, it is woefully typical. And as such failures have mounted, King-Harbor has become not a refuge for the desperate but rather an obstacle to their rescue.

Every hospital makes mistakes. But the mistakes have become so commonplace at King-Harbor that the county cannot in good conscience allow patients to be treated there.

Certainly a hospital can be fixed, can't it? If there is inadequate funding, get more money. But, as The Times reported three years ago, the medical center is flush, with more money per patient than other county hospitals. If the problem is poor management, bring in management consultants to shape up the place. But the county spent more than $17 million on a firm to do just that, and the problems remain. Fire the employees? Done. They interviewed, and nearly three-quarters of them were rehired. Turn it over to a successful hospital, like Harbor-UCLA? Tried that. It turns out that, when Harbor-UCLA was supposedly running the place, the same personnel were still in charge.

There comes a time when, after years of attempts to fix a problem, it becomes irrational to expect the same people who failed in the past to succeed in the future. On paper, there may be a way to save the hospital. In the real world, experience has shown that no fix is within the grasp of the Board of Supervisors or the Department of Health Services that the board oversees.

No population needs access to medical care more than that of South Los Angeles, which staggers under the weight of disproportionate stabbings and shootings and also the ills that afflict the poor and those with few choices -- hypertension, diabetes, asthma. Closing the hospital must not be allowed to give the supervisors -- and especially Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, whose intransigence kept reality at bay for years as she fended off criticism and attempts at reform -- any breathing room. They remain responsible for the care of patients who now go to King-Harbor.

Closing the hospital must be done with eyes open. Its shuttering may add to the misery for those forced to go further for help. That is a painful course to advocate. But we are now at the point at which keeping it open is worse.

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