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Plans to close hospital weighed

Three L.A. County supervisors are ready to vote on beginning the process at troubled King-Harbor.

June 23, 2007|Charles Ornstein and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

A majority of Los Angeles County supervisors said Friday that they are ready to vote next week to begin the process of closing Martin Luther King Jr.Harbor Hospital.

Faced with a threat from California regulators to pull the hospital's license, Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Mike Antonovich indicated that they wanted to act before the county's hand was forced.

That would enable them to put in place an orderly plan to protect the South Los Angeles patients who depend on King-Harbor for their care, they said.

The action would essentially start the clock ticking toward closure. State law requires 90 days' notice before an emergency room can be shut down. Such a move would also suggest that the three supervisors are not inclined to do battle with the state over King-Harbor's fate.

"We might as well get started," Molina said. "There's real jeopardy that we may be in a situation where we are going to be closed down. That's more dangerous, because then we'll be ill-prepared and ... create a real flood for other hospitals. This is a much more effective way."

The supervisors would still have the option of reversing course, however, if the hospital passed an upcoming federal inspection and the state retreated from its plan to pull the license.

King-Harbor, formerly known as King/Drew, has been out of compliance with the federal government's minimum patient care standards since January 2004. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has said it would pull the hospital's funding for good in August if it failed the inspection.

In recent weeks, the hospital's failures made national news when a 43-year-old woman died after writhing untreated on the floor of the emergency room lobby for 45 minutes. A second case came to light as well, in which a brain-tumor patient waited four days without treatment before his family and friends drove him to another county hospital for emergency surgery.

The board members' statements to The Times came a day after California regulators threatened to pull King-Harbor's license. If the state Department of Health Services follows through, the hospital will be forced to shut down. If the county appeals, however, the process may take a year or more.

"The bottom line of all this is the county is moving toward closure, and I think it is more likely than not that the hospital will close," Yaroslavsky said.

"There's been a shift, in the last few weeks, of thinking," he said, from hoping the hospital could be fixed to accepting that it must be prepared for closure.

Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, whose district includes the hospital, did not return several phone calls seeking comment. Though she has been quiet in recent days, Burke said in 2005 at a public meeting, "I'll tell you this: That hospital will be closed over my dead body. I want to be clear on that."

A spokesman for Supervisor Don Knabe said he had no comment.


Contingency plan

The three supervisors said independently of each other that they would vote at Tuesday's board meeting to begin the closure process. The comments came in response to a plan by county health officials for proceeding should King-Harbor fail the federal inspection.

The plan calls for closing the public hospital and its emergency room, rerouting ambulances in the region and trying to find a private company to reopen the facility within a year.

Even longtime supporters of the hospital, including Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, conceded Friday that closure appears all but inevitable.

"I do feel like the call for it to close is growing louder and is now across all sectors," said Hahn, whose father, Kenneth Hahn, led the effort to build the hospital as a county supervisor. "People are coming to the realization ... that they're going to be better off not having that hospital available to them, even if that means traveling longer distances."

Hahn said she does not personally support the hospital's closure because the largely poor and minority residents of South Los Angeles have few other options for care.

"That's what's sad to me," she said. "Their health and safety is being threatened both by the hospital being there and by the hospital not being there. What a horrible statement."

Previous efforts to cut services at the hospital have been met by rallies and public protests. But reaction to the current threat has been remarkably muted, a mixture of sadness and disappointment. Some said it was because defenders had grown tired of fighting; others attributed it to the ongoing reports of patient deaths and failed reforms.

Another factor could be the death in April of Rep. Juanita Millender McDonald (D-Los Angeles), one of the hospital's biggest supporters.

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