Underfunding Is a Myth, but the Squandering Is Real

Charles Ornstein, Tracy Weber, and Steve Hymon, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 6

For years it has been a heartfelt cry: “This hospital desperately needs more money!”

Whenever Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center is criticized, as it often is, the response from supporters is the same. They say Los Angeles County leaders never wanted King/Drew built in the first place—and have been trying to starve it ever since.

“You know damn well the county knows what we need,” said “Sweet Alice” Harris, long revered for her charitable efforts in South Los Angeles’ black and Latino neighborhoods. “My problem is: Why is it that they don’t love the poor people and want to help them? We’re the first to be cut and the last to be rewarded.”

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The numbers, however, tell a different story. Though widely believed, the notion that King/Drew is being shortchanged is false.

The medical center spent more per patient than 75% of the public and teaching hospitals in California, according to a 2002 state audit that looked at fiscal year 2000.

The difference is stark when King/Drew is measured against the three other general hospitals run by Los Angeles County.

It spent $492 more per patient daily than Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, $685 more than County-USC and $815 more than Harbor-UCLA in 2002-03, county figures show.

The hospital with the most comparable budget is Harbor-UCLA, a much bigger facility 10 miles away. Last year, Harbor-UCLA had nearly $372 million to work with, not much more than King/Drew’s $342 million.

Harbor-UCLA, however, did far more with its money.

It treated 61% more people in its emergency room and admitted 91% more patients. And it performed certain complex procedures, such as open heart surgery and kidney transplants, that King/Drew did not—drawing in patients who were sicker and more expensive to care for.

King/Drew’s problem is not the amount of money it gets but the way the money is squandered, according to audits, financial records, legal filings and dozens of interviews.

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