LOS ANGELES – The University of California and local officials are weighing a proposal to reopen a troubled south Los Angeles County public hospital that was closed after years of negligence and patient deaths.
The proposal announced Wednesday aims to reopen Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital by late 2012 through the creation of a private, independent nonprofit group to run the hospital, rather than the county.
All five members of the county Board of Supervisors issued laudatory statements about the proposal, calling the reopening feasible, vital and critically needed.
Built to serve the poor and minorities in the wake of the 1965 Watts riot, the facility has provided only outpatient services since August 2007 after the hospital was largely shut down.
Formerly known as Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center, the hospital is treasured by the Black community as a symbol of post-riot renewal and treats one of the poorest regions of the county, with an estimated 700,000 residents within its service area.
In recent years, federal inspectors repeatedly uncovered problems at the facility, ranging from lax sanitation of medical equipment to inattentive care that endangered lives. Those lapses in care caused the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to revoke $200 million in federal funding.
In one egregious case, Edith Isabel Rodriguez died in 2007 of a perforated bowel after writhing in pain on the emergency room floor for 45 minutes without receiving care. Security camera footage showed Rodriguez on the floor as a janitor mopped around her and a nurse dismissed her complaints.
According to a UC regents committee meeting agenda item posted online Wednesday, a private nonprofit group would hold the hospital’s license, have its own independent governing board and operate the facility under a lease agreement with the county.
The University of California would enter into a contract to provide the facility with quality assurance and physicians from its medical schools.
UC president’s office spokesman Paul Schwartz said that the university system has had a longstanding commitment to meeting the needs of the community that King-Harbor serves and that the UC is “pleased to have reached a conceptual agreement on an overall framework.”’
The county, in turn, would fund expansion of the hospital’s patient tower and add a new emergency department, along with other construction needs. The hospital would have 120 licensed beds at full operation.
The UC’s committee on health services is scheduled to discuss the matter March 19.
The UC Regents and the county Board of Supervisors would have to vote to approve the proposal.
Community leaders have detailed the need for an emergency room at King-Harbor long before the inpatient services’ closure. Located in an area plagued by gang violence, the hospital frequently received victims of shootings and stabbings – wounds that can be deadly if immediate treatment is not available.
The county repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to improve patient care through disciplining workers, reorganizing management, closing the trauma unit, and reducing the number of inpatient beds.
In April 2008, Pacific Hospital in Long Beach considered fully reopening the hospital but backed out.
Some said that, with 184 beds, Pacific Hospital was not prepared to handle reopening King-Harbor, but the same cannot be said about the University of California.
The university system already runs former county hospitals at its Irvine, San Diego and Davis campuses.
In addition to managing its own hospitals, the University of California, Los Angeles, is responsible for academic oversight of residency programs at two Los Angeles County hospitals: Harbor-UCLA and Olive View-UCLA.
And, at San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center, all the physicians are members of the UCSF faculty.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement that the UC will bring talent from its top-ranked medical schools to bear on the reopening of the hospital.
“The people of South Los Angeles deserve access to needed, quality medical services, and this proposed plan provides an important framework for addressing this community’s health care needs,” said Schwarzenegger, who is an ex officio UC regent.
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