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Code Red

Maxine Waters is mad. That’s not unusual for the congresswoman, whose public indignation over matters affecting her South-Central district is legion. But Waters is mad about something she had hoped to largely sit out — the crisis at Martin Luther King Jr.–Drew Medical Center in Watts/Willowbrook that has been fulminating all year. With the exception of speaking out in support of the hospital’s neonatology program, one of several departments slated for closure by accreditation officials last spring, Waters says she has deliberately not involved herself in King-Drew’s racially tinged politics. “I staked my fight with King-Drew on neonatology, and that was it,” she said from her Washington, D.C., office. “I stood back. I gave people room.”

But Tuesday’s unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors to close King-Drew’s trauma center changed all that. Waters echoed many other local black figures in saying that cutting trauma services in a community that leads the county in shooting-related deaths and injuries is not the way to bring about the hospital’s much-needed overhaul. “This brings me back to the fight,” says Waters, who plans to challenge the closure in mandated public hearings scheduled in the coming months. “As soon as I can, I’m coming home.”

The cut, in and of itself, is not shocking to most King-Drew observers — not after months of sanctions, warnings, negative ratings, bungled medical care, interim crisis-management teams, recommended closures of vital residency programs such as surgery, and, most recently, revelations about unethical business practices by staff physicians. But axing the trauma center comes as a surprise, for two reasons: The trauma center is one of the few departments that’s actually working well — no sanctions there — and, thanks to the volume of shooting victims and an underinsured population that winds up in life-threatening situations all too frequently, has become the undisputed nerve center of King-Drew. “The trauma center has actually been praised for its efficiency and management,” says Assemblyman Merv Dymally, who chairs a state task force on King-Drew. “There hasn’t been a single word of criticism about it. The county is proposing to save the patient by cutting its heart out.”

While there’s plenty of blame to go around for the plight of King-Drew, the county — its owner — has drawn ire from both supporters and detractors of the hospital for letting the problems fester so long, and then for doing too little to fix them. That all five supervisors signed off on doing nothing for years, and have now united to throw the book at King-Drew, strikes some as disingenuous, and more than a little suspicious. “I don’t support incompetence, negligence, inability or any of those things,” says Waters. “But the county led us to believe that they were going to take charge. It doesn’t make sense to take this away.” South Los Angeles community organizer and health-care advocate John Jackson went further. “They don’t want to figure out how to save this place,” he says bluntly. “They’re trying to undermine the one solid piece, the trauma center, in order to sink the whole. There’s no real political will to do this. It’s not that the county is a bunch of bumbling idiots.”

But Jackson is at least as critical of a cadre of black activists and King supporters who have wielded undue influence at the hospital for decades, influence that has sometimes protected jobs and positions at the expense of overall progress. “But really, the county bows to pressure that isn’t real,” adds Jackson. “The bottom line is that nothing gets done. The real question is, do we have the guts to roll up our sleeves and do what’s necessary? Not so far.” Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas is the only black elected official who’s agreed with Jackson in applauding the county’s move. “It’s about time the Board of Supervisors faced up to their responsibility,” he told the L.A. Times. “There’s no expert in the area of public health care worth his or her salt who would deny that Martin Luther King hospital was in need of radical intervention.”

But the irony of the impending trauma-center closure escapes no one. After the ’65 riots, King-Drew was created out of an urgent need to minister to the health needs of transportationally challenged Watts residents so that they wouldn’t have to go elsewhere — Harbor/UCLA, County USC — and waste precious time getting service. Forty years later, the need has not only not abated, it is proportionately greater, especially since county trauma centers have been shutting down in the recent years of fiscal crises and shrinking tax bases. Still, many in the community believe there should be a way for King-Drew to thrive. “I find it amazing that after millions and millions were spent years ago to solve these problems, we’re sitting here now claiming we’re trying to get it right,” says Tim Watkins, president of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a service organization that grew up post-riot alongside the hospital. “As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Watts Riots, I see a convergence of so many problems, not just the hospital, but in public housing, law enforcement. Evidently the solution to poverty is to displace the poor. We’re not fixing the problem, we’re exacerbating it.”


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