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.

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.