In a move intended to pressure University of California leaders, Los Angeles County supervisors unanimously approved a plan Tuesday to ask the university's regents to commit to partnering with the county to reopen the long-troubled Martin Luther King Jr. hospital by 2012. The vote authorizes the county's chief executive, William T Fujioka, to move beyond closed-door negotiations and take the county's proposal to the UC Board of Regents meeting next month. The Willowbrook facility, formerly known as King-Drew Medical Center and King-Harbor Hospital, closed to inpatient services two years ago and since has operated as an outpatient clinic.
"The ball is now in your court," Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said of the regents shortly after joining his colleagues in a vote that was greeted by thunderous applause. Hundreds of people gathered at the meeting to show support for the plan, many of them complaining of serious illnesses and injuries that have gone untreated or been poorly treated.
Supervisors said they believe enough key elements of a possible deal have been resolved over the last several months to take the next step. They expressed cautious optimism, saying the regents could vote in as little as four weeks to endorse a partnership.
"If you want to better engage in our communities, to get out of the ivory tower . . . the one way to engage in a way that is meaningful is to enter into a partnership to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. hospital," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
But numerous hurdles remain.
For one, UC has yet to agree to take up the matter at the regents' Sept. 15-17 meeting in San Francisco, said Peter King, spokesman for University President Mark G. Yudof.
In a prepared statement, John Stobo, the university's vice president in charge of health services, said UC remains committed to working with the county and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office on the deal. But, he added, "just how the UC will be involved is still under review, with any final decision to be determined by discussion with UC's Board of Regents."
Under the terms of the proposed deal, the county would pay all the costs, including at least $372 million for renovations and construction. The university would assume no financial risk but would provide physician services and take primary responsibility for restoring confidence in the facility's standards for patient care. The inpatient units would not use existing county employees, but would begin hiring from scratch.
The plan calls for the hospital to reopen with 120 beds by the end of 2012.
Some crucial points are not addressed in the proposal. Among the most important are finding an outside contractor to operate the facility day to day, and a role for the county's former partner, Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science.
Both the county and UC would be able to terminate the partnership if the other side failed to hold up its end of the bargain.
The hospital shut down inpatient services in August 2007 after years of repeated failures to provide adequate care, including errors involved in multiple deaths. Acknowledging that significant hurdles must be overcome before the hospital can reopen, Supervisor Mike Antonovich encouraged staff to begin work on a "plan B," possibly with USC.
Yaroslavsky mentioned the "skittishness" he sensed among the regents. And Supervisor Gloria Molina said she's "very nervous about making a commitment to a community that . . . may not be honored."