Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital shut down its emergency room Friday night and will close entirely within two weeks, a startlingly swift reaction to a federal decision to revoke $200 million in annual funding because of ongoing lapses in care.
The extraordinary developments mark an end to nearly four years of failed attempts to reform the historic institution, treasured by many African Americans as a symbol of hope and progress after the 1965 Watts riots.
Los Angeles County health services director Dr. Bruce Chernof announced the closure plan Friday afternoon, hours after the hospital learned that it had failed its final test, a top-to-bottom review by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The hospital, formerly known as King/Drew, has shown itself unable to meet minimum standards for patient care since January 2004, according to the regulators.
Effective noon Friday, the hospital declared an “internal disaster” and redirected each ambulance to one any of nine surrounding hospitals. At around About 5 p.m., staff members posted notices saying the emergency room was closed to walk-in patients.
So many temporary nurses had quit or refused to renew their contracts that too few remained to care for emergency room patients, officials said.
“We are down to skeleton staff,” said Carol Meyer, director of governmental affairs for the county Department of Health Services.
Because of the uncertainty created by the decision, state California public health director Dr. Mark Horton said the state will have staff at King-Harbor throughout the weekend to monitor the care provided to the remaining patients.
To treat the poor and minority residents served by the Willowbrook hospital, the county plans to contract with nearby private hospitals and add beds at public facilities. Outpatient clinics and an urgent-care center at King-Harbor will remain open after the hospital closes.
In its final inspection last month, the hospital fell below minimum standards in eight of the 23 areas assessed by the agency.
“While some progress has been made, significant problems persist at MLK-Harbor Hospital,” Herb Kuhn, the Medicare agency’s acting deputy administrator, said in a statement. “Conditions at the facility have placed the health and safety of patients at great risk.”
In fact, reviewers found a host of serious lapses throughout the hospital, some similar to those that county officials swore had been fixed. They included failure to properly clean bronchoscopes—devices used to look into the lungs—which put patients at serious risk of exposure to contagious diseases. In addition, the hospital staff also could not demonstrate its ability to respond to a pediatric emergency, failing to locate critical equipment or even properly calculate how much medication to give a critically ill child.
The federal decision underscores the failure of Los Angeles County government, which despite slashing services, firing hundreds of workers and paying tens of millions of dollars to consultants, could not assure ensure the basic safety of patients at King-Harbor.