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Reopening Martin Luther King Hospital (MLK) must be predicated on providing quality health care for the poorest population in Los Angeles County. Reportedly, the University of California (UC) is set to run MLK under an agreement with the County of Los Angeles. Contractual agreements aside, the hospital’s mission remains to provide quality health care- which seems to have escaped the Board of Supervisors and the County Department of Health Services (DHS).
Tim Watkins, president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), circulated an open letter in April citing community concerns that were overlooked in the county’s policies and management of MLK. Henceforth, surrounding communities must be a significant part of the planning and operation of a “new” MLK.
The WLCAC letter indicates despite numerous “public information” meetings and costly research and oversight fees to outside consultants, questions like the county’s actual commitment to ensure indigent residents receive adequate care, especially if they cannot afford other service options, and the fate of the of MLK’s teaching component, remain.
From MLK’s inception, there was a sense that for once, stakeholders of Watts and other nearby communities had finally gotten the attention of decision-makers and that the 1965 Watts Revolt would prove to be the catalyst for change and new hope for the future.
In the years since, MLK has been the object of great criticism and denigration. It was a Cadillac with a Volkswagon engine; it had great physical capacity but lacked the support from the county-and other governmental entities- that would enable it to flourish. Ironically, despite serious systemic limitations, MLK was cited among the nation’s top ten hospitals in terms of profitability. The county eventually accepted the recommendation of Dr. Thomas Gartwaite, its Medical Director, to scale back some departments and close others.
The dismantling of MLK was deliberate, slow, and painful. With the steady flow of negative reporting by the Los Angeles Times, the county commenced The hospital’s breakdown, brick by brick, through a series of critical cuts. Decompression was the strategy employed by the county providing more resources to weak areas while shutting down strong ones. This led to the closure of one of the most successful trauma centers in America. (Army personnel received medical training for field combat at MLK.)
The dismantling of MLK over the past few years has placed roughly one million residents in SPA6 (MLK’s Service Planning Area) at severe risk. The overwhelming disease disparity in this area was documented as long ago as 1966 in the McCone Commission Report and, thereafter, many times over, before the hospital’s closure. A County’s annual report on health indicators confirmed that lives were at stake and the delivery of quality care to SPA 6 residents was essential.
Watkins’ letter mentions that various county officials alluded to residents’ concerns as outside the “mainstream.” But he asked, “How can this be? Who is the community if not the stakeholders and who are the stakeholders if not the taxpayers?”
As of this writing, the County is awaiting a response from UC to its proposal. Initially, U C said it was willing to take part in efforts to reopen the hospital, but was primarily interested in academic and clinical, not administrative operations.
The County’s proposal will likely include the following: The County will compensate the University for “handling the County’s obligation” of providing healthcare to its residents; the property will be leased to the University for one dollar; the personnel issues will be handled by the University; the County will cede governance of the hospital to the university; and, the 250 resident slots at the hospital that have been preserved by the County will be given to the University.
The surrounding community—with interested others must insist on an active role in reopening MLK whose closure has caused many families to go without adequate medical care. (Even the Los Angeles Times editorialized that the much-maligned residents have not received critically needed medical treatment since last August.)
Public officials have failed to provide quality health services to the county’s poorest population; their record of neglect and lack of accountability at MLK is forcefully conveyed In the WLCAC letter. The county’s poor leadership, starting with the Board of Supervisors, was the major factor in MLK’s demise, but residents too must be accountable while maintaining pressure for the delivery of quality health care services.
The hospital’s tortuous downward odyssey reflects a double standard wherein race and class played a significant role. Political will and community vigilance are key to eradicating that standard and ensuring that residents, representing their own interests, are involved at every step of MLK’s reopening and subsequent operation.
Larry Aubry n can be contacted at e-mail