Thousands of patients in Los Angeles 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’s analysis, which prompted a strongly worded response from county officials who accused The Times of publishing a “misleading and sensationalistic story.”

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 county Department of Health Services, a sprawling safety-net system that serves more than 2 million people, 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.

DHS officials Wednesday afternoon accused The Times of ignoring evidence showing that the department has greatly improved its specialty care system to provide on-time consultations and procedures in the vast number of cases.

“From the beginning, the reporters made it clear in emails and comments to DHS staff that they had their minds made up and were out to prove a premise that the specialty care system was flawed,” according to a DHS statement. “…As they looked for justification, filing more than a dozen public records requests for hundreds of thousands of records, they ultimately focused their analysis on a small subset of cases that represent less than a third of all new specialty care visits. Even then, they did not give adequate consideration to the fact, that in about 10% of these cases, delays calculated by The Times included factors outside of DHS control, such as the inability to reach patients after multiple attempts or when patients themselves asked for a later appointment.”

The department said that since 2017, it has dramatically revamped its system for scheduling non-emergency specialty care appointments and cut the time for making initial patient contact to schedule an appointment from 24 to five days.

DHS officials also said that for the 30% of cases that used telemedicine — “which was the focus of the Times’ analysis” — a medical expert gave initial advice within an average of 2.1 days, and if that advice included the need for an in-person visit, three-fourths of those appointments were scheduled within the medically acceptable timeframe.

“While the cases cited in the article are complex and heartbreaking, they are not representative of the care provided by DHS today. They were carefully cherry-picked from the era before DHS made major changes to specialty care scheduling,” the DHS statement says.

“…No health system is perfect,” the statement continued. “We fully acknowledge that although it is a great improvement, our new scheduling system has its own limitations. Yet our use of telemedicine for specialty care consultations is considered state-of-the-art. Our biggest health plan recently rated us at greater than 90% compliance in non-urgent specialty care access.”

Though it is difficult to directly compare L.A. County’s wait times to those of other health care systems, The Times reported that 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.

County officials said they don’t track how many people have died while waiting for an appointment with a specialist. 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 health care official, has called on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to launch an independent investigation into the wait times at county hospitals.

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