LOS ANGELES -- Federal officials today are alleging nurses at Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center left critically ill patients unattended for hours at a time and were ordered to lie about patients' conditions.
Some of those left alone died, according to a CMS report. County officials said the findings could lead to a criminal investigation into the hospital's practices.
Federal inspectors had previously reported that nurses failed in providing basic patient care, doctors allowed problems to fester and the county was guilty of poor oversight. The latest inspection was triggered by a state inquiry into the deaths last summer of two other patients who were connected to heart monitors.
If the problems are not immediately corrected, the hospital could lose all federal funding, which accounts for about half its $430 million annual budget.
Calls to the hospital seeking comment were not immediately returned Friday.
The Los Angeles County hospital, established as a response to the 1965 Watts riots, is the only public hospital in the South Los Angeles area and serves a largely poor population. It receives $13.8 million a year from the county.
An accrediting group last year stripped the hospital of its ability to train aspiring surgeons and radiologists and recommended closing the neonatology training program.
Five patients have died at the hospital over the past year, according to the unreleased CMS report obtained by the Los Angeles Times. They include:
- Oluchi McDonald, 20, who suffered from gangrene of his intestines. He was found on the floor in a pool of his own vomit. Federal inspectors said nurses failed him from the moment he arrived in the emergency room until 18 hours later when he died.
- Another patient suffering from gangrene and other problems died days later from similar neglect, the report said.
- In July, two women died when nurses did not notice their declining conditions even though they were connected to cardiac monitors. A patient hooked up to a similar monitor also died in December.
"It's just unbelievable. It's unethical. It's immoral and it's probably illegal," said county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Nurses told inspectors that their supervisors had ordered them to downplay the conditions of critically ill patients to subvert rules requiring that the sickest patients get more care.
Assistant nursing director Margaret Latham was suspended without pay last Friday and was escorted from the hospital, the Times reported.
Officials in the county Department of Health Services said they were preparing cases to be presented to the district attorney's office to determine if crimes had been committed. These include "intentional misrepresentation of patient conditions," said Fred Leaf, the agency's chief operating officer.
Leaf said that the department was investigating 20 to 25 cases of misconduct at King-Drew and that he expected disciplinary action to be completed in coming weeks.