Los Angeles struggles to save trauma center

LOS ANGELES — In a massive show of strength, thousands of South Los Angeles residents and labor, community, and religious leaders gave notice Nov. 15 to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that its plans to close the Martin Luther King/Charles Drew Medical Center’s (KDMC) trauma center will be met with unprecedented opposition every step of the way.

Rep. Maxine Waters, who has spearheaded the movement to save the trauma center, acknowledged the scores of, unions, churches, neighborhood groups, and grassroots people who have joined in the struggle to save the unit. Referring to the campaign’s growing momentum, she said, “You haven’t seen anything yet!”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Diane Watson, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally and scores of other state and local officials added their voices to the rally held in front of the local high school down the street from KDMC. The supervisors were holding a hearing there to consider the trauma unit closure.

“This is bigger than King/Drew,” said Jackson, addressing the crowd. He noted that the struggle of the 1960s was the impetus to build the hospital “out of the ashes of Watts,” and that now “40 years later, the trauma center is threatened with closure.”

Pointing to hospital closures in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and to nationwide service cuts for the poor, Jackson said, “This is about Schwarzenegger and Bush.”

Mayor Hahn pointed out that the area served by the trauma unit gave overwhelming support to a successful $170-million county bond issue to maintain and extend the countywide trauma system in 2002. “We need to keep that money in the community,” said Hahn.

Last week the City Council unanimously joined Hahn in opposing the closure. Villaraigosa said the city of over 4 million should have a say in the matter. “We have a responsibility for public safety,” he said, emphasizing that the trauma centers are key to the safety net. “Health care is a right, not a privilege.”

At the hearing, county officials claimed that pressure from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations (JCAHO) led them to propose that the hospital’s trauma unit be closed.

The county says it could lose $200 million in federal funds and loss of accreditation for KDMC if hospital improvements are not made, but that closing the trauma unit, where patients require disproportionate care, would free funds to correct alleged deficiencies.

However, both CMS and JCAHO said that closing the trauma center is not necessary to meet their concern about overall care at the hospital, according to a letter to the board from Rep. Juanita McDonald-Millender, who represents the community surrounding the hospital.

Administrators’ promises that trauma patients could be taken to alternative units were rebutted by testimony at both the rally and hearing. Representatives of local government in Long Beach and Lynwood testified that the hospitals in their areas are not prepared to treat King /Drew patients without additional funding, despite the county’s promises.

Hahn and Compton Fire Chief Rico Smith reported that paramedics in their cities say longer drives for trauma patients would mean loss of lives and take up much more time per case for the paramedics. King/Drew Trauma Director Dr. Jean Claude Henri added that extra time in transit before trauma treatment would also reduce trauma victims’ possibilities of recovery.

Perhaps the sharpest point of contention was the county claim that the closure was not a matter of money, but solely one of quality care.

Dr. Fred Hyde, a consultant on preventing hospital closures, admonished the Board of Supervisors, saying that “you can’t outsource the safety net.”

Trauma units are being closed worldwide, he said, because the volume of uninsured makes them big money losers. The real solution for King/Drew, according to Hyde, is for the hospital to hire two or three dozen additional critical care nurses.

Understaffing and county administrative neglect are the cause of breakdowns in service, not the doctors, nurses and staff, Waters said. Representatives of SEIU Local 660, which represents most of the hospital staff except the doctors, outlined in a detailed presentation how closure of the trauma unit would lead to the inevitable closure of the entire hospital and the Charles Drew Medical School associated with it.

A vote on the issue is not likely until sometime after Nov. 23.

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