As Los Angeles County employees prepared for a possible general strike at public hospitals and clinics this week, a group of private physicians Monday offered to provide free care for the low-income patients who would most be affected.
Dr. James A. Mays said the potential disruption of services at public facilities such as County-USC Medical Center, one of the nation's busiest hospitals, could plunge the region into a medical crisis.
"The potential is for controllable diseases to become emergency diseases," said Mays, a family physician who runs two private clinics in South-Central Los Angeles and Inglewood. "The doctors of the community are offering to step in and become a safety net."
Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center, a private Mid-City facility, has agreed to set up a telephone triage system to set up appointments.
Jerry C. Johnson, director of business development at Metropolitan, said hotline workers will refer callers to a participating private physician in their community. If the person needs further medical attention or hospitalization they will be referred either to Metropolitan or its sister facility near Bellflower.
Johnson and Mays said many of the people who use the service would be expected to have Medi-Cal or some other form of insurance. But no one will be turned away, they said.
"In our patient base, we do serve some indigent people and those are losses we'll have to incur to a degree," Johnson said.
So far, about 60 physicians affiliated with five private clinics have offered their services, mostly in the targeted areas of Central, South-Central and East Los Angeles, Compton and Inglewood.
Mays and Johnson said they submitted a hastily devised emergency crisis intervention proposal to the county Board of Supervisors and to city officials in hopes of forming a cooperative association.
"We want to have an ongoing relationship with the county to take some of the load off of the system," Mays said. "What we don't want is for the 911 system to become overwhelmed with nonemergency illnesses."
County health officials said they already have a system in place to refer patients to privately run clinics that have contracted with the county. But all support is welcome, they added.
"We're always really pleased when the private sector pitches in, because our primary concern is patient health," said health department spokesman John Wallace. "I don't know how much time there is to coordinate efforts, but the department would want to cooperate with anyone willing to provide additional care."
A countywide walkout affecting medical services will only add to the misery of many low-income residents who have been coping with the 25-day-old strike that has shut down Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus and rail lines, Mays said.
That strike began Sept. 16 and has led many of the region's transit-dependent working poor to cancel medical appointments. At the start of the MTA strike, Mays joined other physicians, churches and community groups to organize van rides to help residents fill prescriptions and get to medical appointments.
Mays said the same van system can be used and expanded to help residents get to participating private medical clinics if there is a walkout at public facilities.
Negotiators for Los Angeles County and the Service Employees International Union Local 660, which represents about 47,000 county workers, are trying to head off a general strike Wednesday, which also could close libraries, recreation facilities, courts and other county offices.
The L.A. Metropolitan Medical Center hotline can be reached at (800) 954-4747.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A series of one-day strikes throughout Los Angeles County began Oct. 2. The following are the departments that will be affected and the days the walkouts are planned:
* County-USC Medical Center
* Olive View Medical Center
* Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center
* High Desert Medical Center
* Department of Health Services
* Northeast cluster of county health centers
* Coroner's office