The promise of good medical care returns to South Los Angeles

Merdies Hayes | 11/21/2012, 5 p.m.

Construction is continuing at the new Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center (or King-Drew Hospital) in Watts/Willowbrook with the first phase scheduled for completion next spring. The hospital closed in August 2007 after federal regulators found it unable to meet the minimum-standards for patient care. Only the urgent care facility and an outpatient clinic remain open.

When the doors officially open in 2014, the new hospital will be smaller--120 beds as opposed to the original 396--with portions of the original facility remaining intact and seismically retrofitted. Among the additions will be a new emergency room (suitable for up to 30,000 patients annually) and three operating rooms to address major health needs of the community. The project entails renovation of 194,000 square feet of the original six-story main building, as well as construction of a 25,000-square-foot complex for a cafeteria and offices.

Through the years, the old emergency room was often overrun with patients--particularly victims of violent crime (shootings, stabbings, muggings) as well as typical urgent-care cases (auto crashes, industrial accidents, etc.)--to such a degree that the quality of medical care there had fallen far below acceptable standards. Just before the 2007 closing, King-Drew (one of several names licensed over the years) treated 2,150 gunshot wounds in 12 months. The facility has serviced as many as 11,000 in-patients and 167,000 out-patients in one year. The United States military frequently sent trauma teams to train at the hospital's emergency room.

The major health needs referred to will be better monitoring of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity, which are principal scourges within poor communities of color. Physicians there will emphasize medical care and de-emphasize surgical care. This is because so many impoverished residents traditionally seek care in the late stages of illness (i.e. cancer, AIDS, heart disease, diabetes) because of the lack of medical insurance. Generally at that point, many patients, particularly seniors, learn they are terminally ill.

King-Drew will be part of a larger clinic/outpatient-based community healthcare system administered by Los Angeles County and the University of California Board of Regents. "The agreement to reopen MLK Hospital creates an innovative partnership that will serve a vital need for the people of South Los Angeles," said Dr. John D. Stobo, UC senior vice president for health sciences and services. "We look forward to working with Los Angeles County in extending UC's role as a key component in California's medical safety net."

UC and county officials will each be responsible for appointing the new medical staff. However, the university will not be financially liable for the new entity, but rather the county will provide money to reopen the hospital as well as maintain a fund for on-going financial support to ensure long-term viability. This nonprofit entity will do the hiring. This was a key component in the negotiations to reopen the facility, because for years the hospital had been seen by critics as a "job-placement" center for various elected officials and others with political connections to it, said Terry Ford, a professor of health science at the university of la verne, who helped design the hospital. During the past two decades complaints about hospital management and standards of care have been leveled against the Board of Supervisors and Los Angeles City Hall, claiming that political leaders have "looked away" from the shame of such a poor record of service to an impoverished community.