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Hope for King

A plan to bring a high-quality healthcare facility to South Los Angeles is good news.

March 14, 2009

It was welcome news this week when Los Angeles County officials announced that they're close to completing plans to expand medical care and service to residents of the southern portion of the county. The county and the University of California, if their plan proceeds, would form a private, nonprofit hospital corporation with an accountable board appointed by both public entities. Funding would come from the county, but physicians and staff would not be part of the county system. Residents would have a 24-hour emergency room and inpatient care facility nearby for the first time since the hospital at Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center closed in August 2007 and, it is to be presumed, consistently high-quality care for the first time in perhaps decades.

The arrangement is creative and promising. Replacing management at the tragically substandard medical center didn't work, nor did going through the motions -- many times -- of reevaluating and retraining staff. By reaching out to the UC system and being willing to get out of the way of the day-to-day operations and administration, the county appears to have come closer than it has in many years to fulfilling its duty to hundreds of thousands of residents. A special salute is due Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who, although in only his fourth month on the board, brought an added sense of urgency.

The Times notes, with some wariness, the county's emphasis on "reopening" the hospital near Watts. Some buildings may in fact reopen, and others will be constructed, but the new facility will replace the one that opened with so much promise in the wake of the 1965 riots and closed amid so much failure and misery three decades later. There must be a final severing of the link between the new facility and the culture that pervaded the old medical center, where symbolism and the demands of staff and physicians were placed ahead of the needs of patients.

There is little point in tripping up over words. If the new hospital is to be named, like the old one, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that need have no bearing on whether the new facility can shake off the baggage of the shuttered one. Nor should it be a deal-killer that the hospital may establish a relationship with Charles Drew University, which was an integral part of the teaching hospital in the past.

But the Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center and related facilities on the county's medical campus remain in operation, with county staff, and will continue in service adjacent to the new hospital. That shouldn't be a deal-killer either -- but the county must constantly work to ensure that the problems of the old institution don't fester at the existing facility, and don't in turn bring down the new, independent hospital.

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