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The promise of good medical care returns to South Los Angeles

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

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas hailed the UC decision to partner with the county as a major step in providing quality healthcare in South Los Angeles. "Your unequivocal support of this agreement will contribute to the substantial momentum we have already generated and we salute you for engaging in a partnership that will have a positive effect on health in L.A. County," he said.

The new hospital will cost the county approximately $353 million; this is after payment of $50 million in startup funds and an expected annual $63 million in operating costs. For the first six years after reopening, payment of the hospital's operating funds will be secured by a $100 million letter of credit obtained by the county from a major lending institution.

By becoming a private, nonprofit entity, King Hospital may be positioned to take advantage of California's complex Medicaid rules, which sometimes reimburse private hospitals at higher levels than public ones. About 53 percent of the hospital's patients are on Medicaid, 14 percent have Medicare, 31 percent have no employment healthcare plan, and virtually none have private health insurance.

Occupying 38.5 acres, the original MLK broke ground in April 1968, just days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and opened in 1972. The hospital's historic mission was to not only provide quality healthcare in Watts/Willowbrook, but to train Black doctors and nurses and provide local jobs.

The educational quotient gave rise to the UCLA-Charles R. Drew School of Medicine, as well as the Augustus F. Hawkins Mental Health Center, where students would study and graduate from medical school and practice locally.

Among the reasons for building the hospital was the lack of quality healthcare in Watts/Willowbrook.

Politicians such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, Cong. Augustus F. Hawkins, state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally and even such national leaders as Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and Sen. R. Sergeant Shriver (the latter two being the national faces of the Johnson Administration's "War on Poverty") played a significant role in laying out the case for the hospital and helping to procure/allocate county, state and federal funding. All this took place when so-called "big spending" liberal policies of the 1960s ascribed to the "guns and butter" ideology of military might abroad and urban renewal/social enhancement at home.

Establishment of MLK Hospital was spurred significantly by the 1965 Watts Riots. California Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown appointed that fall the McCone Commission to identify factors that contributed to the unrest. Among other factors, was a lack of healthcare access near low-income areas. At that time the closest major trauma center was Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in East Los Angeles.

The new hospital would merge in the early 1970s with the Charles R. Drew School of Medicine--already established in Watts by 1963--and was essentially conceived and spearheaded largely by the efforts Hahn, Hawkins, and Dymally, as well as then Los Angeles City Council members Gilbert W. Lindsay and John Gipson and state Assemblyman Leon Ralph.

Community activist Ted Watkins and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee played a significant role in waging a grass-roots campaign to establish King-Drew and bring modern health services to the community.

King-Drew's fall began 10 years ago with an array of problems related to incompetence and mismanagement, according to a series of national, state and local reports. This perceived lack of quality care would earn the disparaging nickname "Killer King" among nearby residents and hospital staffers alike. In August 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported that two women connected to cardiac monitors there died after their deteriorating vital signs went unnoticed. The next year a third patient, Edith Rodriguez, 43, collapsed to the floor in a waiting room and died under questionable circumstances.

When federal officials shuttered the hospital in 2007, it became the 15th general acute-care facility to close in Los Angeles County since 2000. About half of these hospitals served residents south of the 10 Freeway. Today, the closest verified trauma centers are St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood or, further still, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.