Struggle continues to save trauma center

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is steamrolling towards the closure of the trauma center at the county’s Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. The trauma center handles 2,150 life-and-death emergencies yearly from the primarily low-income African American and Latino residents of the surrounding Watts community in South Los Angeles.

The drive to close the trauma center, however, has met with strong opposition. Led by Rep. Maxine Waters and Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, who represent the area, SEIU Local 660, the African American political leadership of the city, along with Mayor James Hahn, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke and others, the trauma center’s supporters are urging the remaining four of the five supervisors to stop their plans to close it.

The issue surfaced in September after the community learned the supervisors had held a secret meeting to unanimously agree on the closure and then tried to vote on the issue right away. Protests did compel the supervisors to postpone their decision until Nov. 15.

It is clear that federal health officials under the Bush administration, representatives of the national health establishment, and the Los Angeles Times have been encouraging the board majority on the closure.

In recent years the Times has run major stories about alleged mismanagement and mistreatment at the medical center. During the past year county health officials have taken hands-on management of the entire hospital. Now the county officials say that though the trauma center is not the main problem, it should be closed to allow more energy to be spent on solving more serious problems in other parts of the hospital.

The Center for Medicare Medical Services under the Bush administration has insisted on hiring a consulting firm to run the hospital and on Oct. 19 the supervisors approved a $13.2 million contract with Navigant Consultants to do so. Pointing out that the contract includes the trauma center, Burke made a motion to postpone the Nov. 15 hearing until the consultants could assess the situation. Her motion died for lack of a second.

The morning of the Oct. 19 vote on the Navigant contract the Times reported that the president of the national Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, Dennis S. O’Leary, told the supervisors that the hospital should “divert its most demanding cases to other hospitals in its community,” a clear reference to the trauma center.

O’Leary also said that protests have made a “very politically charged atmosphere with accusations of racism and everything else imaginable.” He said supervisors should not let this sway them and that protesters “are not behaving as part of the solution.”

Despite such browbeating, Waters told a community coalition organizing meeting, “We will not back down, we will not quit; we will move all that is necessary.”

She pointed out that in November 2002, county voters overwhelmingly voted for allocating $150 million to maintain and expand current trauma facilities countywide, not to close them. She outlined plans to mobilize up to 100 buses from local churches, joint action with SEIU Local 660 and countywide supporters for the Nov. 15 hearing scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Drew Magnet School Auditorium, 1601 E. 120th Street in Willowbrook.

The author can be reached at rosalio_munoz@sbcglobal.net.