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THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING

We need a hospital more than ever

September 09, 2007|Yvonne B. Burke | Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke represents the 2nd District, which encompasses much of South Los Angeles as well as the recently closed Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital.

The sad truth is that the availability and quality of healthcare for the residents of Watts and the surrounding areas is even worse today than it was four decades ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital was conceived.

In 1965, at least there were a number of private clinics and many small and large private hospitals that served the population.

Today, the uninsured -- who constitute a large part of South L.A.'s population -- receive very little preventive care. They go to county emergency rooms when their needs become acute, which is the most expensive and least effective way for people to deal with their health problems.

With King-Harbor Hospital basically closed, the situation is growing even worse.

The urgent-care clinic -- one of the few parts of the hospital that was left intact -- is operating 16 hours a day, seeking to provide medical care to patients with non-life-threatening complaints and trying to ensure the immediate transfer of patients in need of lifesaving emergency services. The outpatient clinics that have been left open have a newly completed surgery center to perform minor surgeries, which is important because most minor surgeries are performed on an outpatient basis. But the staff that provides these much-needed services must be sufficiently trained to provide top-quality care.

It is critical that we work overtime to locate alternatives for people in the community, who made about 47,000 visits to the hospital's emergency room last year. We must conduct a thorough, bilingual community outreach effort to inform area residents about the changes in service during this transitional period and about exactly what emergency and urgent-care options are available to them.

Ultimately, a full-service hospital must continue to exist in South L.A. to meet the needs of the community.

In moving forward, we must determine whether a private hospital or manager will come forward to take over. (If so, it should not expect that there is greater revenue available then previously budgeted.) If no private taker emerges, the county must be prepared to rebuild the staff and structure of King-Harbor. The hospital must be re-engineered and made more efficient for patients. King-Harbor, as well as all of our county-run hospitals, must invest in systems and equipment to compete with the private sector.

I know that, just as in 1965, the cry will be "South-Central does not need a hospital." We already are hearing, "Tear it down, and let the people go somewhere else."

The reality is that the need is greater today than ever, and California Health and Safety Code Section 17000 places the responsibility for indigent care on county governments. I believe the Board of Supervisors is committed to fulfilling its mandate in a community setting, assuring that healthcare is provided for every resident of this county.

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