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Caring for South L.A.

The UC regents should approve a plan that would bring a hospital back to the area.

November 19, 2009

University of California regents have a lot on their minds, given the damage inflicted on their institution by budget cuts. They must surely be tempted to pass up a chance to help deliver a new teaching hospital to millions of Los Angeles County residents. But they should resist the impulse and embrace the proposal before them today, demonstrating the university's continuing commitment to educate and to serve.

The county's failure to adequately oversee the former Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center was so sweeping, and the results so disastrous, that any public or private entity would have qualms about stepping in. But let's be clear about what the regents are, and are not, being asked to do. They are not being asked to operate a hospital, or to entangle themselves in Los Angeles County politics, or to expend resources that could otherwise be used to forestall precipitous fee increases.

Before them is a proposal, hammered out over 18 months of talks between UC experts and county staff, to create a new public authority, similar in structure to the well-regarded L.A. Care, the nation's largest public health plan. The county and UC would each appoint two members to the authority's board, and would jointly name another three. That authority -- we'll call it NEWCO, as it's designated in some of the coordination documents -- would contract with a private nonprofit entity, which would in turn operate the new hospital on the Willowbrook site of King-Drew, unfettered by county civil service rules or county politics.

UC's second role would be to provide that hospital with physicians. The costs of hiring, training and insuring them would be reimbursed by NEWCO, and NEWCO would be funded by the county and Medi-Cal reimbursements. UC's obligations would terminate if county funding fell short. Meanwhile, UC would further its educational and public service mission with the opportunity to fill 250 federally paid residency positions, geared toward physicians wanting to serve in an area of severe need.

And the need is dire. A recent study by Community Health Councils Inc. found that residents in the South Los Angeles region have a fraction of the physicians, hospital beds and preventive facilities per capita that are available elsewhere in the county. No comparable population in the state is so poorly served.

Faced with economic challenges, California too often tries to wall off each program, as state and county lawmakers blame one another and schools, universities, healthcare providers, prisons and other institutions fight over the same scarce dollars. The state's survival as a special place of opportunity requires creative, cooperative solutions such as the one before the regents. We urge them to sign on, and to show California the way forward.

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