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Plan could lead to reopening of King-Harbor Medical Center

A tentative agreement would allow the troubled Watts hospital to reopen by 2012 as a joint operation of L.A. County and the University of California.

March 12, 2009|Garrett Therolf

Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital near Watts would reopen in three years with an emergency room and inpatient services under a tentative agreement that would substantially improve access to care in one of the most underserved areas of the nation, according to state and county officials.

Under the plan, worked out in negotiations among county officials, the University of California and representatives of the governor, the hospital would be operated by a new nonprofit entity governed by a board equally controlled by UC and the county.

The county would pay all the costs. 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 hospital would not use existing county employees, but would begin hiring from scratch.

Inpatient services at the hospital were shut down in August 2007 after years of repeated failures to provide adequate care, including errors involved in multiple deaths. The final case was that of a 43-year-old woman who was seen on a widely aired videotape writhing unattended on the floor of the emergency room lobby for 45 minutes.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
King Hospital: An article in Thursday's Section A about a plan to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital said the hospital first opened in 1978. It opened in 1972.

The plan for the reopened hospital calls for 120 beds with an average daily census of 108 patients -- far fewer than the 233 beds the hospital once had. The proposal is silent on some crucial points. Among the most important is finding an outside contractor that would operate the facility day to day.

But the deal nonetheless appears to meet many of the demands for a new hospital that have topped the agenda for residents of the South Los Angeles area. The facility would offer a broad range of medical services and would once again be a teaching hospital.

"There are some very, very significant health needs, and this goes a long way to serving them," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes the Willowbrook hospital. "No matter where you live in the county, you need everything working. You cannot have that facility down."

County efforts to reopen King floundered until last May, when Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the hospital's "last, best hope" would be a partnership with the UC system. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a personal interest in that proposal, holding a meeting on the topic in his Santa Monica office, and asked his health and human services secretary, Kim Belshe, to shepherd talks.

When Ridley-Thomas took office in January, he made clear that his No. 1 priority was the hospital's reopening. Not by accident, the tentative deal for King was announced on the supervisor's 101st day in office as his staff works to highlight his progress.

Schwarzenegger said in a statement to The Times, "The people of South Los Angeles deserve access to needed, quality medical services, and this proposed plan provides an important framework for addressing this community's healthcare needs."

Ridley-Thomas' colleagues on the Board of Supervisors issued positive statements about the proposal even as they underlined the reality that the public review period is just beginning and details remain scant.

The county board and the UC Board of Regents would both have to approve the deal for it to take effect. Some funding elements would require changes by the state Legislature.

"There is no perfect structure, but we did it the county way for 30 years and it didn't work. This is a different approach," Yaroslavsky said. King was opened as a county hospital in 1978 as the fruit of an effort that began in the aftermath of the Watts riots 13 years earlier.

Since the closure of King's inpatient services, state and county officials have poured more than $100 million into surrounding hospitals in an attempt to address the resulting vacuum. But the South Los Angeles area remains among the most medically disadvantaged communities in the nation.

For every 1,000 people in the area, there is less than one hospital bed. The national average is three beds for every 1,000 people.

More people die of lung cancer, stroke, diabetes and heart disease in the area than in any other place in L.A. County. Diabetes rates are 44% higher than elsewhere in the county, hypertension rates are 24% higher, HIV/AIDS rates are 38% higher and asthma rates are 11% higher.

The reopening plan specifies that the county's existing Civil Service rules not apply to the new hospital. Critics of King's failings in the past have said those rules hindered efforts to remove bad doctors, nurses and other employees. The workers would probably be unionized, but no union has been promised the chance to organize them, Ridley-Thomas said.

Outpatient services would continue to be county-run and subject to Civil Service rules, a provision that county unions demanded. A plan lacking that element would have been "dead on arrival," said Ridley-Thomas, who benefited from millions of dollars in union support during his hard-fought election last year. "We want to have a solution that is embraced broadly," he said.

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