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UC's healing power

November 18, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

The University of California system is one of America's greatest public institutions. There is virtually no significant branch of human knowledge that has not benefited from its scholarship. It is, at once, a great engine of this state's long-term prosperity and a continuing affirmation of our common belief that equality of opportunity is more than just an altruistic impulse.

Like so many other public institutions, it also is passing through an unparalleled financial crisis. Draconian cuts in the budget allocation the university receives from Sacramento have left the system $1 billion short of what it needs. As a consequence, when the 26 university regents meet today and Thursday at UCLA, they'll be considering an array of dismaying choices -- from additional increases in student fees to reducing admissions to reducing faculty.

Clearly, their first duty is to attend to these challenges. One of the university's glories, however, always has been its recognition that, even in the hardest of hard times, it is inextricably bound to the larger California community through a set of reciprocal social obligations. On Thursday, the regents also will have the opportunity to reassert the inviolability of those bonds by approving an agreement that would allow Los Angeles County to reopen Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in a public/private partnership with the UC system.

Under the agreement, the university would provide the doctors and pay for their malpractice insurance. L.A. County would provide $350 million in capital funds, $63 million in annual operating expenses and a $100-million line of credit to protect the university against the cost of unforeseen emergencies.

Before withdrawal of federal accreditation forced the county supervisors to begin closing the old King-Drew public hospital three years ago, a toxic combination of political meddling and official indifference made the institution a watchword for malfeasance and mismanagement. To insulate the new facility against the unsavory local and ethnic politics that afflicted King-Drew, the new hospital would be governed by an independent board -- two members to be named by the regents, two by the county, three jointly.

Of all the governmental failures that plague this region, there is nothing that affronts the public conscience quite like the lack of a public hospital in South Los Angeles, an area that encompasses the poorest, neediest and least healthy communities in the county. It is a social disaster and a moral scandal. The idea of redressing it through a county/UC partnership was first advanced on this page by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in May 2008. Mark Ridley-Thomas, who soon after was elected to the Board of Supervisors to represent the 2nd District, which encompasses South L.A., has made reaching such an agreement his top priority.

Since King-Drew closed, the situation in the 2nd District has become far more desperate. The current economic crisis has hit the mostly African American and immigrant Latino communities of the area with devastating force. Their access to private healthcare -- always the worst in the county -- has diminished further. Their levels of chronic illness and infectious disease -- always among the county's highest -- have climbed.

And you can add hunger to the disproportionate problems of South Los Angeles. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study released Monday found that the nation's high unemployment level has produced the largest increase in "food insecurity" -- hunger -- ever measured by the government. One in five American children now lives in a household where food sometimes runs short, and more than 1 million experience real hunger. In South Los Angeles, the jobless rate runs as high as 23.3%, well above national figures, according to economist Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Children in single-parent households -- a large share of South L.A.'s population -- are particularly hard hit by hunger; one-third report being regularly without food. African American and Latino households are twice as likely to experience food shortages as white families. Again, that's a demographic description of South Los Angeles.

State and county health and finance officials say the public/private partnership agreement now on the table would guarantee a hospital that not only could sustain itself but also turn a profit. Ridley-Thomas and Kyser point out that it would also create desperately needed jobs both on and off its campus in a field -- healthcare -- where employment is growing. Thus, approval of the agreement would address South L.A.'s most pressing needs: adequate public healthcare and new employment.

Some of the UC regents have referred to the King hospital agreement as "a moral imperative." It is -- and when the regents vote on it Thursday, their ballots will constitute a plebiscite on the state of the UC system's soul.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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