Concerned with the number of emergency room closures that have impacted the Southland in the past several years, Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, chair of the California Legislature Committee on Health, held a hearing Friday entitled “Impact of Health Facility and Emergency Room Closures on Access to Care” at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.
“Since 1998, 15 hospitals have closed in Los Angeles County, including Daniel Freeman Memorial in Inglewood, Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne, St. Luke Medical Center in Pasadena, and Martin Luther King Jr. in Willowbrook,” Dymally read in a written statement.
Dymally said that each time a hospital in the region closes, the burden on the remaining hospitals is increased–a situation that has contributed to a crisis for the area’s emergency rooms. “For example, patients who would have gone to MLK are mostly seen by three hospitals which are bulging at the seams with new patients: St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood; Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood; and Memorial Hospital in Gardena,” he pointed out.
Dymally said that emergency room closures have particularly impacted South Central Los Angeles, where the need for medical care is greatest. “South Los Angels remains among the most disadvantaged and undeserved communities in the nation: diabetes rates are 44% higher than elsewhere in the county; hypertension rates are 24 percent higher; HIV/AIDS rates are 38 percent higher, and asthma rates are 11 percent higher.”
Dymally said the ongoing challenges in the local health care system must be urgently addressed. “Delays can mean the difference between life and death,” he pointed out. “As chair of the state Assembly Health Committee, I am committed to monitoring the impacts of the closure trends and to always look for ways to address health care access for the communities I represent, even as we struggle with state and federal budget deficits and program cuts.”
A broad cross-section of representatives from the medical community were on hand to deliver their perspectives on the ongoing emergency room crisis, including Carol Meyer, director of governmental affairs of Health Services for Los Angeles County.
“The County Health department is facing several hundred million dollar deficit next fiscal year. In three years, that cumulatively will exceed a million dollars. Therefore, any additional cuts to the public hospitals in Los Angeles County by the state or by the federal government will be devastating,” Meyer said.
“In general there are only 75 remaining emergency rooms in Los Angeles County for a population of over 10 million people. We have lost over 10 emergency rooms and in most cases, entire hospitals in the last five years alone,” Meyer observed. “This is due to many impacting factors, but the greatest factor is decreased revenues and increased health costs. However, when emergency rooms are overwhelmed, it doesn’t matter if you’re insured or uninsured when the waits are 5, 10 or 12 hours long. Everyone waits, whether you’re insured or uninsured.”
Meyer said that she recently experienced first hand the crowded conditions facing emergency rooms when her daughter severely broke her arm. “I took my daughter to the emergency room at 9 p.m. and I had an insurance card. We had to wait 7 hours because there was no an orthopedic surgeon available.”
Meyer said that the solution to the problem is that every single resident in the United States must have health insurance. “It must be a right,” Meyer pointed out. Whether it’s Universal coverage or a combination of private and government insurance, everyone has to have health insurance, and I strongly believe that that’s the solution. Without the funding, hospitals will continue to close,” Meyer said.
Jim Lott, executive vice president of policy development and communication for the Hospital Association of Southern California, observed, “We have seen a dramatic decrease in bed capacity in Los Angeles County and a huge increase and demand–especially for those who don’t have health insurance coverage in South Los Angeles.
“We have less than one hospital bed per 1,000 residents in South Los Angeles compared to two beds per thousand in California and compared to 4.3 beds per thousand in the United States. When you marry that acute shortage against the lack of primary and chronic care management services in South Los Angeles, you’ve created a third world country in South Los Angeles,” Lott pointed out. “That’s tragic and that’s something that needs to be turned around.”
Lott recommended that the medical community urge Congress to provide infrastructure development grants for severely undeserved communities. “This is needed so that we can get primary, chronic and acute care services in these areas, and that’s got to happen now. The other recommendation is that the state of California has got to stop discriminating against hospitals in Southern California. They are paying the community hospitals in Southern California 17 and a half percent less than they are paying the hospitals in northern and central California for providing the same services.”