Critics say the Board of Supervisors has not come down hard enough on MLK, because every previous threat to shut down the hospital has been greeted by loud and prolonged objections from the African-American community. Yet, in the wake of Ponce’s experience and Rodriguez’s death, once-vocal black-community members and organizers have grown notably silent. “We expected an outcry,” says the county source, “but we honestly haven’t had one.”
Najee Ali, a South Los Angeles activist and director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E., and in the past a fiery MLK supporter, says the two high-profile incidents have “made it very hard to defend Martin Luther King hospital. That’s the real reason there’s no outcry.” Behind closed doors, Ali says, sentiments among many in the black community have changed. “You hear people saying that maybe it does need to be closed down for a while and then reopened,” he says. “It’s just nobody wants to come out with it publicly. But I live in that neighborhood, and I think it needs to be said. I know I’ve lost confidence. A lot of people have.”
In an effort to keep the feds from pulling the plug, the county on June 15 issued a detailed “Plan of Correction” regarding Rodriguez’s death. Then on June 18, the county issued a second correction plan, after the feds probed Ponce’s four-day ordeal and other incidents and concluded that ER patients at MLK face “immediate jeopardy.”
Both plans call for yet another round of retraining, plus new regulations and monitoring. But critics question whether training and extra rules can make much difference, when six hospital staff members ignored Rodriguez as she vomited blood, or when multiple physicians and nurses failed to follow existing regulations as Ponce suffered textbook symptoms of a man about to be blinded — or worse.
THESE INCIDENTS, and the alarming new failures detailed in Tuesday’s federal report, occurred in a hospital that is supposedly the most aggressively monitored in Los Angeles.
“At this point, it starts to seem like indifference among some of the medical staff,” concedes Ali.
Chernof, the reigning health official, vehemently disagrees. He says the Ponce and Rodriguez incidents are “tragic” and “not appropriate” but insists that “tens of thousand of patients are being treated . . . professionally and with care.”
“We can’t afford for this hospital to be closed,” says Chernof. “It’s much too important to the surrounding communities. And we expect the hospital to stand up and meet the standards that the [federal regulators] expect and that the community expects.”
And what if it doesn’t? “It will,” Chernof says. “It has to.”
Whether Chernof is wrong or right, one unalterable fact remains: In a city with an already overburdened health system, Martin Luther King Jr.–Harbor Hospital served 48,000 people just last year. If the authorities shut it down, nobody knows where all those patients will go.