Construction is underway on what will be known as Martin Luther King Jr.… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
Earlier this year, Joane Austin rushed her elderly mother to the emergency room for fear she was having a heart attack.
Austin normally would have made the short trip to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, the landmark hospital in South Los Angeles. But King/Drew has been closed for five years, so Austin drove several miles to the emergency room at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.
"I prayed all the lights would stay green," she said. "It was scary."
Once they arrived, doctors determined that Austin's mother needed emergency surgery to remove scar tissue around her intestines.
For years, King/Drew provided emergency, trauma and inpatient care to residents from throughout South Los Angeles. After a series of medical errors resulted in patient deaths, Los Angeles County closed it in 2007. County officials promised the community a better, safer new medical center in a few years.
But the opening has been repeatedly delayed, and the community is still waiting. Originally, officials hoped to have the new facility ready by 2010. Then it was pushed to 2012. Now, officials say they plan to have construction completed next year and the hospital opening its doors in 2014.
Without a nearby hospital, patients have had to travel to such places as Bellflower, Inglewood and Long Beach for emergency room and inpatient care.
Several local hospitals — California Hospital Medical Center, L.A. County/USC Medical Center and Harbor-UCLA Medical Center — received an influx of former King patients after the closure. The closest hospital, St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, reported an increase of 20% to 30% in emergency room visits since King/Drew closed, though other factors also may have contributed to the rise.
Getting to other hospitals has presented a challenge for many in the low-income neighborhood, said William Hobson, president and chief executive of the Watts Healthcare Corp. "Just the fact that it is a long way away may discourage them from going," he said.
The closure of King/Drew, which was born out of the Watts riots and opened in 1972, created a healthcare gap in a community where rates of chronic disease are high and vast swaths of the population lack insurance, said David Carlisle, president of the adjacent Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. South Los Angeles has a shortage of doctors, inpatient beds and outpatient services, according to both experts and research.
Despite King/Drew's many medical lapses, which earned it the nickname "Killer King," many in the community remained fiercely loyal to the hospital and the services it provided.
Studies examining the impact of King/Drew's closure found that it led to delays in care for elderly blacks and Latinos and a dramatic increase in patient admissions at other trauma centers. Physicians throughout the county also reported more overcrowding in other emergency rooms and said they saw sicker patients who didn't know where to go or couldn't afford transportation elsewhere.
"It is fearful to think about how many lives may have been saved had this thing been opened by now," said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of the advocacy group Community Health Councils. "It shouldn't take five years to build a facility."
Patrick Wooten, 49, went to St. Francis when he had a dislocated kneecap a few years ago. Wooten, who is uninsured, said he received good care at the private hospital but then got a $3,200 bill. Wooten said he is frustrated that the new King hospital still hasn't opened and won't until 2014. "What you do until then, God only knows," he said. "Hopefully we can wait it out."
Last year, Sandira Gonzalez, 29, took her 5-year-old son to the Martin Luther King urgent care center when he had a fever. But when the center closed for the night, her son had to be taken by ambulance to Harbor-UCLA near Torrance, where he was treated for an infection.
Community members and advocates said they are disappointed by the long wait, caused by a combination of bureaucratic delays and the complexity of the project. But when it does open, they said, they are hopeful that it will be a better, and safer, hospital.
The county is building the hospital and will help support it financially but will not be responsible for day-to-day operations. Instead, an independent, nonprofit organization will run the facility, to be known as Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, and the University of California will help staff it and ensure the quality of patient care. Construction is progressing, but the grand opening may still be nearly two years away.
"It will be a significantly different kind of institution, with the right kind of accountability," said Robert K. Ross, president and chief executive of the California Endowment. "Now we just need the institution to open up on budget and on time."