The Los Angeles City Council voted 15-0 Tuesday to create a citizens' health commission to assess the needs of residents and monitor how well Los Angeles County -- which provides public health and healthcare services to the city -- meets its obligations.
By approving the initiative, council members headed off a ballot measure that would have put the question to voters casting ballots in the Nov. 4 general election -- saving Los Angeles an estimated $4.4 million in election costs, according to an estimate from the city clerk.
"This is a great opportunity for the city to control its own destiny," said Michael Weinstein, director of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and a backer of the ballot initiative. "There's no system for holding the county accountable for wait times and other issues that arise. This is a quality control mechanism that currently doesn't exist."
The Health Protection Act authorizes each of the 15 City Council members to appoint one member to the new commission. Volunteer commission members would serve one-year terms, during which they would publish an annual health services plan for Los Angeles and report twice a year on the city's progress toward meeting its goals.
According to the initiative, one or more members of the commission will be required to attend all meetings of "any and all" county bodies or agencies that "formulate, debate, enact, and/or implement health policies or actions." Additionally, the body would review a representative sample of health services contracts fulfilled by the county for the city.
During Tuesday's meeting, Councilman Bernard C. Parks questioned whether the county would be required to comply with the commission's findings. Deputy City Atty. Harit Trivedi said that the degree of county cooperation would be out of the city's control. Los Angeles County Department of Public Health chief Dr. Jonathan Fielding has called the effort "a bureaucratic solution in search of a problem."
The commission is to be funded "in a revenue-neutral manner," the initiative says, and without using money from the city's general fund. Ed Johnson, assistant chief deputy for City Council President Herb Wesson, said that exact costs to the city "had yet to be worked out."
The council's decision to approve the measure comes after years of jockeying between the city, the county and Weinstein's foundation, an advocacy and healthcare services provider that has been sharply critical of Los Angeles County's Public Health Department -- most recently, its response to a meningitis outbreak among gay men.
In 2013, the organization supported a ballot initiative to create a city public health department, but dropped that push after it came under intense fire from city and county officials.
Standing outside council chambers following Tuesday's vote, Weinstein said his organization was looking forward to working with the commission and the council.
He and Johnson both said they expected the council to negotiate with the backers of the ballot initiative to tweak the ordinance. Weinstein, who said his organization would cooperate "with any process that's reasonable to improve the commission's functioning," said he expected changes might include revising the commission members' terms of office, or adding mayoral appointees to the body.
Johnson suggested the council also might want to revisit the commission's scope.
The new body is intended to monitor all healthcare-related matters overseen by Los Angeles County, including the county's public health department as well as its $3.8-billion health services department, which operates a vast network of hospitals and clinics.
"I think our preference would be to focus on public health," Johnson said of the council.
According to provisions in the ordinance, the council can amend the measure by a two-thirds vote, once 30 days' notice has been provided to the new commission.