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L.A. County officials seek UC's help in reopening Martin Luther King Jr. hospital

Regents express support for a partnership with the county but are concerned about whether the university would be protected financially.

September 18, 2009|Larry Gordon

SAN FRANCISCO — A delegation of Los Angeles County political, business and labor leaders were in San Francisco on Thursday to urge the University of California to become a partner in reopening the Martin Luther King Jr. hospital in Willowbrook, near Watts, by 2012.

Speaking to UC's governing board, the county officials offered strengthened plans to protect UC financially and tried to allay fears among the regents that the university might get too enmeshed in county politics.

The regents are expected to vote in November on a plan to jointly reestablish the hospital, which was closed to in-patient services two years ago after repeated failures to provide adequate care, and errors that resulted in deaths.

"Communities in need of healthcare services are impatient and need our support," Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas told the regents, meeting at UC San Francisco's Mission Bay campus. "The ball is in your court. Let's close the deal."

After the hearing, Ridley-Thomas said the talks with UC were "evolving in a very, very positive way, and I think we will have great reasons for celebration in November."

A number of regents expressed support for the university system providing physician services and medical oversight for a new nonprofit 120-bed hospital. But despite county assurances that the university would not be responsible for any financial liabilities, many regents also expressed anxiety about such a commitment when the university faces significant budget problems, including staff layoffs and sharply rising student fees.

Regent Sherry Lansing, who heads the panel's health services committee, said university leaders were torn between "the moral imperative" to improve healthcare for the low-income area that King hospital would serve and the need for UC to protect itself.

"So we are trying very hard to make sure this is a sound financial situation for us," she said.

John D. Stobo, UC's senior vice president for health sciences and services, said negotiations would continue with the county over the next few weeks so that an improved plan could be presented to the regents for a vote in November. Much of the talks would center on timelines and other details of a $100-million line of credit the county would establish as a backstop to protect UC in case the county defaults on its obligation, he said.

L.A. County Chief Executive William T Fujioka, who also attended the San Francisco session, said that that line of credit would never be used because the county would meet its promises. Under the proposal, the county would provide more than $350 million to renovate and add to the hospital and $63 million a year for its operation.

Other proponents of the hospital proposal included Gary Toebben, chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, and Raahi Reddy, an official with the Service Employees International Union Local 721. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who is a regent by virtue of her office but rarely attends the meetings, was there Thursday in support.

One regent, George Marcus, expressed strong opposition, urging university leaders to find a way to help improve medical care in the Willowbrook area without becoming entangled in L.A. County government.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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