South Los Angeles activist Virginia Franklin wept before Los Angeles County supervisors Tuesday, recalling how her mother, a psychiatric nursing professor, would bring her students to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center to train.
Holding her 5-month-old nephew Kelly, Franklin asked the four board members present, "When he wants to go to school, where's he going to do his internship?"
Another resident, Delana Sowell, 47, described how King/Drew doctors cared for her 1-year-old grandson stricken with a seizure. "They did all they could to save his life" -- and did, said Sowell.
Those flashes of emotion punctuated a muted public hearing on the future of the now-defunct and renamed Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital. But the hearing was merely a legal formality 2 1/2 months after health officials closed the hospital indefinitely after it failed a critical federal inspection.
Compared with the packed 2004 hearing that preceded the closure of the hospital's trauma center -- a facility considered vital to the violence-prone surrounding neighborhoods -- Tuesday's gathering was subdued. Fewer than two dozen people testified, most of them health or legal advocates citing South L.A.'s high disease rates coupled with scarce medical services.
According to a new report funded by the California Endowment, south Los Angeles County has fewer hospital beds -- roughly 1 per 1,000 people -- than any other region of the county, and below the state average of two beds per 1,000 residents.
Health advocates pleaded with supervisors to allow for more community involvement in the effort to reopen King-Harbor and complained that scant publicity about Tuesday's hearing resulted in the small turnout. The people of South Los Angeles "have been exhausted by the battle" to save King-Harbor, said Tim Watkins, of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. "They're no longer able to come forward."
The Willowbrook hospital, long plagued by problems with patient care, still bustles with activity: Although the emergency room was shuttered, an urgent care center operates there 16 hours a day. Visits have been steadily rising since the August shutdown; 2,700 patients sought urgent and specialty care there during the week that ended Oct. 20. Nearly 200,000 visits to the urgent care center and dozens of specialty clinics are expected in the next year.
County health officials say they welcome the higher-than-expected patient volume because it takes pressure off the overburdened emergency rooms at other nearby hospitals.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who plans to run for retiring Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke's seat next year, urged the board to better inform the public about the future of King-Harbor's emergency services, adding that King-Harbor's uncertain outlook creates a "lack of hope" in the community.
Since the shutdown, the county Department of Health Services has mostly completed shuffling hundreds of King-Harbor employees around the county. Just under a third of its 1,600 staff members have been transferred to other county hospitals. More than 800 stayed behind to run the urgent care center, but that number is expected to decrease.
No employees have been fired in the latest round of transfers, said John Barbadian, director of human resources for the county Department of Health Services. The staffers remaining after several years of discipline and downsizing "were frankly some of our better employees," he said. Nearly a dozen are taking or retaking competency tests now.
County health chief Dr. Bruce Chernof tried to be upbeat Tuesday about his department's progress in finding a new operator to run King-Harbor. In a letter to supervisors Monday, he reported that "With the exception of a few, many of the large California hospital systems . . . said they they were not interested in participating in the reopening" of King-Harbor.
So far, seven organizations have expressed interest: Temple Community Hospital in Los Angeles; Pacific Hospital of Long Beach; SSB Solutions, a healthcare consulting firm; and Black Foundation/Care Group International, a nonprofit that provides care to needy communities in the U.S. and abroad; as well as three groups contacted by the board: Catholic Healthcare West, Daughters of Charity and the University of California system. Formal proposals are due Monday.
A private operator "will give the hospital the best opportunity to take a big step forward and start anew," Chernof said Tuesday. In the event that no deal materializes, health officials are drafting plans for how the county could run King-Harbor again, he said. If the county were to reassume control, it is unclear whether King-Harbor would be an independent hospital or part of another county facility.
Abandoning plans for a revamped King-Harbor is not an option, said Burke, whose district includes the hospital.
"We have to make it work," she said, adding that UC would be her choice to manage King-Harbor.
In contrast to Tuesday's sparse gathering, several hundred neighborhood residents crammed a standing-room-only meeting organized by health officials earlier this month to discuss the search for a new King-Harbor operator. There, residents expressed anger that they weren't more involved in the search process, demanded greater transparency from county health officials and questioned whether a new hospital would serve the specific needs of the largely minority and uninsured community.
"I have found it very difficult to get a direct communication with the people who use the hospital," said Burke, who did not attend that meeting.
"You're talking about people who work hard, who don't have a lot of time to come to meetings, in many instances are even reluctant to have a contact with government."