2nd Suit Aims to Keep Rehab Center Open

Times Staff Writer

Three public interest law firms sued Los Angeles County on Wednesday to block the planned closure of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center and the elimination of 100 beds at another county hospital.

It was the second time in less than a week that the county was hit with a lawsuit over Rancho. Last Thursday, a coalition of disability rights groups filed a class-action suit in U.S. District Court, charging that closing the rehabilitation center would violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act by depriving patients of treatment.

The Board of Supervisors endorsed the cuts in January as part of an eleventh-hour effort to shore up a public health system that is straining to serve millions of uninsured residents. By voting to reduce the number of beds at County-USC Hospital and close Rancho, a nationally renowned Downey hospital that treats people with severe spinal cord and head injuries, lawmakers said they hoped to stave off further closures and avert a collapse of the health-care network.

"Even before these cuts, the county's facilities were operating far beyond capacity, with severely ill patients often waiting months or even years for treatment," said Yolanda Vera, an attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services, which filed the latest lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court in concert with the Legal Aid Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Slashing more hospital beds and closing Rancho "endangers these patients' lives and violates their rights under state law," she said.

Gary Harris of Los Angeles, one of several uninsured plaintiffs in the Neighborhood Legal Services suit, said the hospital literally got him back on his feet after he was critically injured three months ago in a drive-by shooting. Although he once had to use a wheelchair, Harris, a 47-year-old father who used to sell souvenirs on Venice Beach, is able to walk with the aid of crutches.

"If it wasn't for Rancho, I would still be in a wheelchair," Harris said. "It means everything to me that they stay open."

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, one of four lawmakers who voted to close Rancho by the end of June, described it as a painful decision to help sew up a $750-million hole projected for the coming years. "We don't disagree ... with the sentiments behind the suit," Yaroslavsky said. "None of us want to close Rancho. It's a horrible position that all five supervisors find themselves in, but we've had to make painful choices. We don't print money in the basement of the Hall of Administration."

At a Wednesday news conference on the steps of County-USC, emergency physicians spoke of the extreme demands already buckling the health system. In an earlier round of cuts last summer, the county closed 11 outpatient clinics.

Dr. Edward Newton, vice chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine, said he has watched the number of County-USC's beds plummet from 1,200 about 15 years ago to 745 today, while the number of uninsured patients has climbed. When the aging hospital is rebuilt, according to a plan recently approved by the supervisors, it will have 600 beds.

"We are looking at a massive inundation of the emergency department," Newton said, "to the point where we are no longer able to deliver care."

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