Los Angeles County health director Dr. Thomas Garthwaite resigned Tuesday to take a position with a Pennsylvania-based hospital system.

Garthwaite, who has been health director since 2002, informed the Board of Supervisors that he had accepted a position as chief medical officer of Newtown Square-based Catholic Health East, which operates 31 acute care hospitals in 11 states.

Garthwaite had come under criticism by community supporters of troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Willowbrook as he sought to plug a multimillion-dollar budget deficit by closing the hospital's trauma center and other programs considered important to the community south of Watts.

His tenure also has been marked by a struggle to downsize the massive health department, which has repeatedly cut costs and relied on infusions of federal aid to care for the country's largest population of uninsured residents. Once the current federal waiver expires next year, the health department will confront a deficit of at least $600 million.

Garthwaite took the position three years ago with ambitions to restructure and modernize the department. But he only had limited success, given the ongoing financial shortfall, as well as the problems at Martin Luther King, which were closely documented by the media and included several fatal medical errors. The hospital consumed so much of his attention that at one point he moved his office there.

In a statement responding to the resignation, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky noted that Garthwaite was the first medical doctor to head the department and brought a degree of professional training and medical expertise to its operations that hadn't been seen previously.

"He served at a difficult time under stressful conditions, dealing routinely with crises major and minor," Yaroslavsky said.

Supervisor Michael Antonovich, a frequent critic of Garthwaite's proposals to salvage the medical center, declined to comment on his departure but wished him well in the next phase of his career.

Staff reporter Howard Fine contributed to this story.

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