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A lesson from Brooklyn

New York officials, unlike those in L.A., responded quickly and firmly to a hospital death caught on tape.

July 07, 2008

On June 19, surveillance cameras in a Brooklyn, N.Y., mental ward captured shocking images of a woman collapsing on the floor and lying there, untended by hospital workers, for an hour. She soon died.

The tape, released last week, touched a nerve in Los Angeles because the incident was reminiscent of the death of Edith Isabel Rodriguez at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in May 2007. Rodriguez lay on the emergency-room floor as a janitor mopped around her. The description of her suffering, and of the indifference of hospital workers, silenced all but the most recalcitrant defenders of the mismanaged medical center. It finally closed after it failed a last-chance federal inspection.

As it happens, video images of Rodriguez's death also became public last week. The near simultaneous release of the two tapes may tempt some L.A. County officials and King-Harbor advocates to seek comfort in the knowledge that what happened here has occurred elsewhere. But a comparison of the two incidents leaves little cause for comfort.

New York City attorneys quickly turned over to plaintiffs' attorneys the videotape of Esmin Elizabeth Green's collapse at Kings County Hospital Center. Los Angeles County, by contrast, refused to release the security tape of Rodriguez, even to her family, arguing that it was confidential. The images of the horror, which took place on public premises and involved hospital workers on the public payroll, are available to the public only because they were sent anonymously to The Times a year after Rodriguez's death. The hospital may have closed, but the county's culture of secrecy thrives and its suspicion of the public it supposedly serves remains strong.

It is also striking that action against employees in New York was swift. The director of psychiatry, the director of security and the doctor on duty were all fired within 24 hours of Green's death. No one was fired over the Rodriguez incident, and, in fact, a Times review of personnel data shows that hundreds of problem employees who were supposed to be swept out of the county health system remain on the job. Times staff writers Garrett Therolf and Jack Leonard reported that at least 22 workers with significant discipline histories at King still work at the clinics that remain open on the site of the hospital or at other county health facilities. County supervisors claim they had no idea.

No health system can ever be free of error or tragedy, but Los Angeles County leaders must not underestimate the depth of the problem facing them. And they might do well to take a look at Brooklyn, where a tragic mistake occurred but officials showed the right way to deal with it.

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