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LA County Votes to Reopen Troubled Hospital, UC Expected to Staff the Facility


County officials on Tuesday approved a plan to fully reopen a troubled South Los Angeles hospital that has become a symbol of the area’s continued racial strife.

To the cheers of a packed hearing room, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to revive Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, where two years ago a woman with a perforated bowel was ignored and died after writhing on a waiting room floor for nearly an hour.

Under the plan, the county will provide more than $350 million in funds to rebuild the hospital and a master-planned health community surrounding it, while the University of California will staff the hospital and oversee its medical care. The hospital would be administered through a private, nonprofit organization with county and UC officials on its board.

The plan now goes to the university’s regents for consideration. Their next meeting is scheduled to begin Sept. 15.

UC officials so far have been “skittish” in negotiations, according to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

“We need them, we need the University of California,” said Yaroslavsky, adding that the county has made ample legal and financial assurances to the university, and the new facility would open 250 slots for medical residents.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes the hospital, urged UC to “do the right thing.”

Dr. John Stobo, UC senior vice president for health sciences and services, said the role of the university remained under review, and he pledged to continue working with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and county officials to “explore the reopening of the hospital and address the health needs of individuals in that service area.”

University officials declined further comment about negotiations with the county.

Built to serve one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, years of negligence and patient deaths forced the partial closure of King-Harbor in August 2007.

The hospital, formerly known as King-Drew, is treasured by the Black community as a symbol of renewal after the 1965 Watts riots and has an estimated 700,000 residents within its service area. About 50,000 patients per year received acute care there.

But repeated lapses — from lax sanitation to inattentive care — caused the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to revoke $200 million in federal funding for the hospital in 2007.

In a prominent case just months before most of the hospital closed, Edith Rodriguez died in the hospital’s waiting room in May 2007 after 45 minutes of agony suffering from a perforated bowel.

The 43-year-old woman yelled out in pain, but a nurse dismissed her complaints and a janitor could be seen on security video mopping around her.

King-Harbor’s emergency room was shut down. The hospital now provides only outpatient services, while would-be emergency patients flood other local ERs.

County Health Deputy Yolanda Vera said Ridley-Thomas’ plan reflects not only South Los Angeles’ need for a fully operational hospital, but a community revitalization surrounding the facility. Improved public transit ties, a community college health care training academy, and a fitness park are all part of the supervisor’s plan.

The new hospital will have 120 beds — a modest number compared with the more than 500 beds King-Drew had the peak of its services.

“Nobody is building hospitals right now,” said Vera, adding that starting small could ensure success.

In a town hall meeting held for South Los Angeles residents earlier this month, Dr. Hector Flores said fully reopening the hospital would do more than provide the area’s residents with health care.

“The economic stimulus a hospital presents cannot be ignored or overstated,” Flores said.

The plan calls for the hospital to be fully operational by the end of 2012.

“Anybody who is afraid to set a date for the work that they’re trying to do is not serious about getting that work done,” Ridley-Thomas said in the town hall meeting, to loud applause. “We’re going to set a date and drive to it.”

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