Thousands of LA patients enduring long, sometimes deadly delays waiting to see specialists

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Thousands of patients in L.A. County's public hospital system endure long, sometimes deadly delays to see medical specialists, a Los Angeles Times investigation has found.

Doctors, nurses and patients describe chronic waits that leave the sick with intolerable pain, worsening illnesses and a growing sense of hopelessness, according to the newspaper.

The average wait to see a specialist was 89 days, according to a Times data analysis of more than 860,000 requests for specialty care at the L.A. County Department of Health Services, a sprawling safety-net system that serves more than 2 million, primarily the region's poorest and most vulnerable residents.

Even patients waiting to see doctors whose prompt care can mean the difference between life and death -- neurologists, kidney specialists, cardiologists -- routinely fell victim to delays that stretched on for months, according to the data, which covered 2016 through 2019.

When presented with the newspaper's findings, state regulators launched an investigation into whether the waits violate California regulations.

"It is not acceptable" to have to wait months to access care, Rachel Arrezola, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Managed Health Care, told The Times.

The Times' independent data analysis offers a unique view of non- urgent specialty treatment in one of the country's largest public health systems. Though it is difficult to directly compare L.A. County's wait times to those of other healthcare systems, recent surveys and research about specialty care suggest county patients wait significantly longer than elsewhere in the U.S., including the Veterans Health Administration, which has faced scrutiny for its delays.

As part of its investigation, The Times obtained complete medical records for half a dozen county patients. All faced waits of at least three months to see a specialist, and all died of the illnesses they waited to have treated. It wasn't always clear how much the waits contributed to the patients' deaths. But in every case, doctors who reviewed the records for The Times said the patient should have been treated sooner and called the newspaper's findings deeply troubling.

It's impossible to know how many people have died while waiting for an appointment with a specialist in Los Angeles County*s public health system. County officials said they don't track that.

But studies show that sick patients are more likely to miss appointments when they face lengthy waits, while those who have serious health conditions -- heart trouble, diabetes, cancer -- die at higher rates.

"This care is an embarrassment and indictment of our healthcare delivery system," said Dr. Kevin Kavanagh, founder of the patient advocacy group Health Watch USA.

 Dr. Kenneth Kizer, a former state and federal healthcare official, has called on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to launch an independent investigation into the wait times at county hospitals.