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Harsh medicine

Despite a federal reprieve, the county must keep the pressue on King-Harbor, for patients' sake.

June 27, 2007

MARTIN LUTHER King Jr.-Harbor Hospital won a reprieve on Monday. Federal officials, seeing some progress in the troubled hospital's emergency room, agreed to wait until mid-August before deciding whether to pull their funding. That gives the county more time but should not weaken its resolve. County supervisors should end their habitual dithering and instead use this extra time to protect patients during and after the hospital ends its life as a county institution.

The problems at King-Harbor cannot be solved by improvements to its emergency room. The essential crisis of the hospital is that the welfare of its staff has long trumped the safety of its patients. The most recent horror stories -- including the death of Edith Isabel Rodriguez, who writhed on the floor begging for help in the last moments of her life -- should have made this clear. Even the white-hot spotlight of constant scrutiny did not alter the institution's practice of providing negligent healthcare.

After Rodriguez's death, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gave the hospital 23 days to fix its problems. Because of Monday's successful inspection of the emergency room, that clock has stopped ticking, and CMS will resolve the hospital's fate on Aug. 15. Few are optimistic about the hospital's chances of meeting CMS standards. The state government is losing patience as well, threatening to revoke its license.

These are difficult days for King-Harbor and those who have long believed in it. But the state and federal actions should not dictate the county supervisors' next moves. They have the opportunity to take this matter into their own hands, to close or sell the hospital on their terms. They have missed such moments before. Indeed, they did so again on Tuesday.

Instead of moving to begin closing down the hospital, as proposed by supervisors Gloria Molina and Michael Antonovich, the board opted to dither, instructing the county Department of Health Services to negotiate contingency plans for patients with neighboring hospitals.

Dithering, living on extensions and waivers, playing for time -- those are the strategies that created the tragic wreck of King-Harbor. Now the county must fix a problem it has preferred to let fester. Turn the hospital over to a private entity -- if one can be found at this eleventh hour. Create a hospital authority to run it, as suggested by Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton). Turn it into a satellite of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Any of those options, if they still remain, are preferable to the dangerous county mismanagement of this once-promising hospital. If none can be arranged, close it down.

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