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County hospital's future remains unsettled

A year after King ended emergency and inpatient care, UC is still trying to decide if it wants to take over.

August 17, 2008|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

The closure of emergency and inpatient services at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital quietly passed its one-year anniversary this week, and county officials acknowledged in interviews that they remain far from fulfilling their promise of restoring it to full operation.

The University of California -- described by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky as the county's "last, best hope for reopening King" -- has so far been unable to overcome significant obstacles to accepting management of the South Los Angeles facility.

The financing, governance and role of labor unions remain unresolved in near weekly negotiations that began in May. Officials on both sides said they did not expect to know until the end of the year if a deal could be struck.

"There is absolutely no commitment on the part of the University of California to do anything," said UC Provost Wyatt "Rory" Hume. "We are engaged with the county and are evaluating."

Yaroslavsky, who sparked the negotiations by making a public plea to the university system in an opinion piece in The Times in May, said he nevertheless remained "very hopeful."

"The UC people basically have questions that everyone has: 'How bad is it? If you don't want to reopen it, why should we reopen it?' " Yaroslavsky said. "These are legitimate concerns. We need to address them one by one, and we will."

In the meantime, all sides acknowledge that supervisors will not be able to fulfill their promise to reopen the hospital within 18 months of their vote on Aug. 14 last year to close the hospital after federal regulators determined that it did not meet minimum standards for patient care.

"It's a shame. We need this hospital back," said Geraldine Burnett, a 74-year-old Compton resident who visited King's scaled-back outpatient clinic this week for an appointment to treat a heart condition.

"I've been coming here since 1990 and have no place else to go."

The outpatient clinic is a work in progress. Fewer patients are visiting than expected, yet the county is spending more than anticipated and the wait time for some services, including dermatology and cardiology, has ballooned to four months or more.

Still, Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who represents the district that includes King, said she remained encouraged and was not worried that the deal with the University of California might not be reached.

"I think we will have a deal before I leave office at the end of the year," she said. "In the meantime, when I go out there to King, I can't believe the number of people that are using the hospital. It seems very popular."

About 120,000 patient visits were recorded in King's first year as an outpatient clinic, far fewer than the 180,000 anticipated. At the same time, health advocates say South Los Angeles has become one of the most poorly served areas in the country.

The county has spent $200 million to keep the clinic running. Yaroslavsky and Supervisor Gloria Molina have sharply criticized that figure, saying the county's Department of Health Services has not provided sufficient information to show why a similar county outpatient clinic in the Antelope Valley has been able to provide patient visits at a significantly lower cost.

One factor helping to keep King's costs high has been the county's slow transfer of many of King's employees to other facilities after the closure of inpatient services reduced staffing needs.

A consulting group recommended last year that King's staffing be reduced to roughly 630 employees.

On Saturday, the transfer of another round of 81 employees from King to other county facilities took effect, but the county has still not reached the figure recommended by its consultant. About 633 remain, plus 30 to 50 temporary employees.

"On many counts, it is disappointing that more progress has not been achieved yet," said Yolanda Vera, director of the health advocacy group LA Health Action. "But I guess my hopeful side would emphasize 'yet.' "


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