California regulators moved Thursday to revoke the license of Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, an action that, if not reversed, would force its closure.
The move, the boldest thus far by the state, follows recent findings by the federal government that patients at the public hospital are in immediate jeopardy of harm or death despite years of reform efforts.
The state Department of Health Services has never before made such a threat against King-Harbor and has not revoked any hospital’s license since 2004.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich agreed. “The time has come to put patients’ lives before incompetent employees or political agendas,” he said.
The state’s decision, which was approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is subject to appeal. That process could take six months to a year.
The state suggested in a letter Thursday to county health director Dr. Bruce Chernof that it could rescind the action if the hospital was able to show that it met state and federal standards—a goal it has been unable to achieve since 2004.
The hospital will remain open in the meantime.
The state’s intervention dramatically increases the pressure on King-Harbor, formerly King/Drew, whose turbulent history traces back almost to its inception. It also marks a change in direction for the state, which in recent months had urged the federal government to continue funding the hospital in hopes that reforms would succeed.
The federal government has for some time dangled the threat of pulling crucial Medicare and Medi-Cal funding—a matter that could be settled by an inspection next month. But the state’s threat is potentially more potent: A hospital cannot operate, period, without a license.
Concern about King-Harbor has been building in recent weeks after highly publicized lapses in care.
On Tuesday, The Times reported that health inspectors, dispatched to investigate the brain tumor patient’s case, found 16 additional cases of substandard care in the King-Harbor emergency room.
Community advocates said the state’s threat, if carried out, would be a disaster for residents of South Los Angeles who have few other options for care.
Founded in a largely African American area in the wake of the Watts riots, the medical center was seen as a symbol of hope, a testament to racial justice in healthcare and a jobs engine for a struggling region.
But soon after it opened in 1972, the hospital became mired in problems, and it eventually gained the moniker “Killer King.” Over the years, it attracted publicity for patient care failures, some of which resulted in deaths.
The latest problems began in 2003, and within months the hospital was found to be out of compliance with minimum federal standards for patient care.
It has failed a dozen inspections since.
A series of articles in The Times in December 2004 found that, by many measures, the hospital was one of the worst in the nation.
The newspaper also found that the medical center was protected by a Board of Supervisors that ducked responsibility for making changes in part because members were afraid of being branded racist.
Since 2004, the supervisors and the county health department have tried various reforms: closing the hospital’s busy trauma center to take pressure off the hospital; spending more than $20 million on outside consultants; disciplining hundreds of staffers; and, most recently, slashing services and putting the medical center under the oversight of Harbor-UCLA, a sister public hospital with a better reputation.