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L.A. hospital under fire after death in ER lobby

/ Source: The Associated Press

An inner-city hospital is struggling to survive amid a new report of breakdowns in patient care, the replacement of its chief medical officer and an ultimatum to correct long-running problems or close.

Newly released tapes of 911 calls reveal that a woman who lay bleeding on the floor of the emergency room died last month after dispatchers refused to contact paramedics or an ambulance to take her to another facility.

The woman’s treatment was “callous, it was a horrible thing,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke said Wednesday.

Earlier this week, the county Board of Supervisors grilled health officials about conditions at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital. It ordered them to return in two weeks with a plan to deal with a hospital shutdown if it is unable to correct deficiencies laid out in a federal inspection that concluded emergency room patients were in “immediate jeopardy.”

The federal review was based, in part, on a report that a man with a brain tumor waited four days in the emergency room when he needed to be transferred to another facility for lifesaving brain surgery.

Hospital given deadline

After the inspection last week, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gave the hospital 23 days to correct problems or face a loss of federal funding. That could force it to close.

Burke said the county-run hospital is a crucial facility and that nearby hospitals could not handle its patient load.

“I can’t tell you whether it can be fixed but ... the community can not stand to lose another emergency room,” she said.

Dr. Roger Peeks, the hospital’s chief medical officer, was placed on “ordered absence” Monday and replaced on an interim basis by Dr. Robert Splawn, senior medical officer for the county health department. Department spokesman Michael Wilson confirmed the change but declined to elaborate Wednesday, saying it was a personnel matter.

Health officials are “doing everything in our power to help MLK-Harbor meet national standards,” Dr. Bruce Chernof, director of the health department, said in a statement.

In a report to the supervisors on Tuesday, Chernof said quality of care had improved but warned that there was no “roadmap” for what he called the most difficult effort to “reinvent a failing hospital” ever undertaken in the United States. The hospital has served “thousands of patients well and a few very poorly,” he said.

The hospital, formerly known as King-Drew, was built several years after the 1965 Watts riot to provide medical care in the South Los Angeles area. It has been cited more than a dozen times in 3½ years for inadequate care that has led to patient deaths and injuries.

The facility came under renewed scrutiny with the release of the 911 calls in the case of Edith Isabel Rodriguez, 43, who died of a perforated bowel on May 9. Her death was ruled accidental by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.

‘Inexcusable’ delay

Relatives said she lay in pain for 45 minutes before dying, a delay Chernof has called “inexcusable.”

A security camera may have recorded the scene, but the tape was not being made public because of patient privacy laws, Wilson said Wednesday.

“We know we have the responsibility to make sure justice is done for our mother,” said Rodriguez’s son, Edmundo Rodriguez, 25.

In his report, Chernof said the hospital violated requirements to medically screen the woman. The person who failed to arrange the examination resigned and others in the emergency room were “counseled and written findings placed in their personnel files,” the report said.

Rodriguez’s boyfriend, Jose Prado, used a pay phone outside the hospital to call 911 and told a dispatcher, through a Spanish interpreter: “My wife is dying and the nurses don’t want to help her out.”

A second 911 call was placed eight minutes later by a bystander who requested that an ambulance be sent to take Rodriguez to another hospital for care. The dispatcher argued with the woman over whether there really was an emergency, refused to call paramedics and eventually cut off the call.

Sheriff’s department spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department was reviewing the handling of the 911 calls by two of its dispatchers.