In South Central L.A., a Hospital Fights for Its Life

Julia Lee holds a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. during a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting last year. The board heard comments on a proposal to cut services at King/Drew Medical Center and later voted to keep the pediatrics, obstetrics and neonatal wards.
Julia Lee holds a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. during a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting last year. The board heard comments on a proposal to cut services at King/Drew Medical Center and later voted to keep the pediatrics, obstetrics and neonatal wards. (By Nick Ut -- Associated Press)
By John Pomfret and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 26, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- A storied hospital, born out of the ashes of the iconic Watts riots of 1965 and a symbol of the promise of black political power, is on life support, and a federal agency could soon pull the plug.

Investigators from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services descended on the King/Drew Medical Center in South Central Los Angeles earlier this month and will soon determine whether the hospital meets standards of care in 23 areas. If it doesn't, King/Drew will lose $200 million of its $380 million budget and could face closure.

Should that happen, county officials predict a health crisis across this county of 10 million people as emergency rooms from tony Beverly Hills to the middle-class San Fernando Valley are flooded with patients. "It will set off a medical meltdown in terms of emergency service," predicted Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which oversees the facility.

The story of the Martin Luther King Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center is a tangled web of race relations, urban poverty, liberal guilt and the type of ward politics more at home in Chicago than in sprawling Los Angeles.

After the deadly riots in Watts 41 years ago, politicians and grass-roots leaders agreed to build a hospital in the area to serve a poor, underserved African American community.

"The hospital was not so much a memorial to the revolt, rather it was a beacon of hope for this poor place. It promised jobs. It promised to catalyze development in the area. It promised opportunities to professionals to move back into the community," said Timothy Watkins, head of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee whose father, Ted, was one of the crusaders for the hospital. From the start, King/Drew was a busy place. Its trauma center handled more gunshot wounds than any other Los Angeles County hospital, and the military dispatched combat surgery teams there for real-life practice.

At the same time, King/Drew's unique history sheltered it from necessary reforms, said Joe R. Hicks, another black political activist who participated in the Watts riots. White power brokers treated the hospital with a mixture of benign neglect and liberal guilt, never fully funding it and never fully taking it to task when serious problems surfaced, he said. And he said African American leaders, for their part, turned the place into a "black patronage outfit, doling out jobs to friends and supporters."

As care deteriorated, Hicks said, black political leaders would intimate that its critics were racist and stymie attempts at change. "Anyone who wanted to reform the hospital was called a bigot, so few people wanted to take that on," he said.

Starting in the 1980s, King/Drew gained a new nickname: Killer King.

Nurses slept through patient trauma and death and turned down noisy heart monitors, missing fatal cardiac arrests. Patients with minor injuries died in the emergency room of neglect or mistreatment. A radiologist was accused of billing the hospital for 24 hours a day of work, for weeks on end. The hospital led the state in malpractice suits and paid millions of dollars for dubious workers' compensation claims.

Staff members at King/Drew also inappropriately employed stun guns to restrain psychiatric patients, allowed employees to stay on the payroll long after they stopped working, and performed lucrative elective surgeries while patients with open wounds were forced to wait for an operating room. One patient had a hysterectomy after a King/Drew doctor told her she had cancer that she did not have. Another patient won a hefty settlement after she was given HIV-infected blood at the hospital and developed AIDS.

King/Drew has been out of compliance with Medicare standards since January 2004, said Medicare and Medicaid Services spokesman Jack Cheevers. It lost its national accreditation in early 2005.


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