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Medical school to sue L.A. County

Drew University officials say students were betrayed when the county cut the facility's ties with troubled King/Drew hospital.

March 07, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Officials with Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science announced Tuesday they will sue Los Angeles County for $125 million, claiming breach of contract when the county cut ties between the medical school and a faltering county hospital near Watts late last year.

Calling the termination of support to 248 medical residents a "callous betrayal," school officials charged that the recent restructuring of the facility, now known as Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, has gutted the university.

"I do think we have an overwhelming case of a gross injustice," said Dr. Susan Kelly, the university's president and chief executive officer. "I don't know if people think of us as fighters," Kelly said at a packed, lively news conference punctuated by applause at the Charles Drew campus. "They'll know we are now."

Under California law, a suit can be filed 45 days after notifying government entities, university spokesman Craig Parsons said.

County health officials issued a statement saying they were "disappointed that Drew has chosen to pursue a lawsuit rather than work constructively with the county" as it tries to regain federal confidence.

University officials and medical residents lobbied county supervisors unsuccessfully last year to continue support of the medical school.

Suing "is the only thing that Drew has got to fight" with, said Jack Cairl, an attorney for the university, the only historically black medical school west of the Mississippi.

The county was forced to downsize the hospital after it failed a crucial inspection last fall, jeopardizing $200 million in federal funding -- a large portion of the hospital's annual budget. To try to keep the funding, supervisors agreed to reconfigure the hospital into a smaller, non-teaching facility under the management of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, another county hospital, near Torrance.

The county cut financial backing of 15 programs for medical residents, thrusting them into educational "limbo," according to the complaint written in support of the planned suit.

"This situation is difficult to deal with," said second-year pediatric resident Tatulian Karmen, 45, of Tujunga. "We're left in the middle."

The 37-page complaint alleges county officials "have sought, and continue to seek, to make the Charles Drew University the scapegoat for the county's betrayal of its obligations to the impoverished and medically underserved in our community." The school has been affiliated with the hospital since the medical facility opened in 1972.

"The county has a very bad habit of ... taking the university and its physicians for granted," said Bart H. Williams, chairman of the school's board of trustees.

Accreditation officials terminated university training programs in radiology and surgery several years ago, citing poor oversight.

Several members of the county board, which earlier had threatened to sever the county's relationship with the medical school, balked at the allegations.

"I was really somewhat shocked by the language that was used," said Supervisor Don Knabe. "We've been dealing in fairness with them."

Knabe added, "I figured they'd do something; I didn't figure it would be this outlandish."

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said, "Their performance has been uneven, to say the least."

"The most important thing for us is to get this hospital back on its feet. It's not critical that it be a teaching hospital," Yaroslavsky added.

Federal officials extended funding for the hospital until March 31, and it faces another review.

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes the hospital, declined comment on the lawsuit, but in a written statement called its timing "unfortunate." Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a longtime critic of problems at the former Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center and affiliated university, was more blunt.

"Drew University will fail in court as they failed as a medical school," he said in a statement.

University officials voiced concern that healthcare in the largely uninsured and minority communities of South Los Angeles would suffer without a homegrown medical education program.

"Where are the doctors going to come from to serve this area?" Williams asked.

After the hospital failed to meet federal standards last year, the university voluntarily withdrew its accreditation. The school can seek reinstatement to relaunch its residency program in July 2008. Plans are underway to break ground on a new, $37-million research and nursing building this fall, Kelly said, and the school has continued support from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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