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Plan to reopen King hospital near Watts by 2012 faces big hurdles

March 13, 2009|Garrett Therolf

L.A. County's new plan to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital was met with cheers in South Los Angeles on Thursday, even though the ambitious timetable will be difficult to meet.

The county vows to reopen King in three years -- an undertaking that would involve erecting two new buildings, rehabbing an existing medical building and hiring doctors and nurses. The county also needs to find hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for it.

"It is a lot of time until 2012, and I just hope the commitment we have now is not lost along the way," said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of Community Health Councils Inc., a health advocacy group. She said she was nonetheless more optimistic than ever before.

Though expectations are high, the county has a history of making unrealistic statements about how quickly the troubled hospital could be resurrected. When the hospital closed in August 2007 after a series of serious medical lapses and patient deaths, county supervisors promised to reopen it within 18 months. That deadline was repeatedly pushed back.

Some county officials worry they might not meet the 2012 target either.

Before the hospital reopens, it needs new facilities, approval from licensing regulators and a public review by the county and the University of California. Those processes all could contain time-consuming pitfalls.

State, county and UC officials announced Wednesday that they had reached a tentative deal to reopen the hospital's emergency room and inpatient units through a newly formed nonprofit corporation.

The first step is for the county Board of Supervisors and the UC Board of Regents to approve the plan in the coming weeks. If that occurs, the nonprofit will be established with two board members appointed by the county alone, two members appointed by UC alone and three members appointed by both entities, according to a "concept paper" by the county and UC.

At full operation, the hospital would have 120 licensed beds, with an estimated 108 beds filled on an average day.

The hospital's emergency department would provide an estimated 30,000 annual visits; the rest of the hospital would provide an additional 10,000 annual outpatient service visits, including follow-up care and outpatient surgeries.

Rather than use the old hospital's main building -- which would cost about $400 million to seismically retrofit -- the county plans to finish three unused floors in a seismically sound "patient tower," an existing building on the hospital campus, and to construct two additional buildings on land that is now used for parking.

That would require a year of architectural work and other planning. The county hopes $290 million in federal stimulus funding will go toward the project, but it is still unclear whether the project qualifies.

The county would wholly fund the new hospital, so it would also have to find Medicaid and discretionary county funding to operate the facility. The county faces declining tax revenue and a health services department deficit that is expected to grow into the hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years.

Nevertheless, County Chief Executive William T Fujioka said Thursday: "We are very confident that the facility will open in late 2012."

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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