Posted on September 13, 2004

Take the Medicine

L. A. Times, Sep. 12

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors may not have a clue on what to do about the troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center, but it does know this much: It wants the county-owned hospital out of the headlines.

For years, the supervisors have tolerated King/Drew’s life-threatening problems and obscured them behind the closed doors of lawsuit settlements and between the covers of scathing federal and state reports. For the last year, however, the hospital’s long pattern of failure — desperately ill patients ignored and left to die, dangerous medication mix-ups, undertrained and unsupervised nurses, shady business dealings, doctored patient charts and timecards — has leaped into the public eye through insistent reporting by The Times.

Auditors last month released a report, ordered by Garthwaite, on the county’s contract with the private Drew medical school, which trains the graduate-level physicians, or residents, who serve as the medical staff at King hospital. The county pays Drew $13.6 million a year — 57% more per resident than it pays Harbor/UCLA Medical Center to run a much better-regarded training program. But Drew keeps such pathetic records that no one can say where the money goes, except to department chairmen who earn 31% more than their Harbor/UCLA counterparts. (So much for the old excuse that King/Drew’s problems stem from stinginess on the county’s part.)

Shocking as they were, the audit’s findings were in line with recent Times stories on sloppy, if not criminal, bookkeeping throughout the medical center. King/Drew paid nearly $1 million in the last five years to a surgical instrument company owned by one of its orthopedic surgeons. Not only did this violate the county’s conflict-of-interest laws, the disposable devices cost twice as much as more conventional (and reusable) instruments preferred by most hospitals. Another orthopedic surgeon lied on his timecards and referred patients from King/Drew to his private practice.