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Race, politics and medical care

Times Staff Writer

When its doors opened seven years after the 1965 Watts riots, the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center was a symbol of pride and achievement in the largely segregated black enclaves of South L.A., galvanized by a thirst for more jobs, education and healthcare.

Today there is still a strong commitment to the troubled institution, which faces a best-case scenario of becoming a smaller hospital under the management of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. But the crisis has exposed fissures among the black leadership of South L.A., King/Drew’s historical backers, highlighting a lack of cohesiveness among politicians, including the regions’ three African American congresswomen.

The crisis has also raised questions about whether this leadership can deal with a hospital whose mission has evolved: Initially it was a black institution serving a largely black population; now it serves a region that is increasingly populated by Latino immigrants.

The current political leadership has been criticized for not being up to the task and for regarding King/Drew as a legacy, rather than a hospital.

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“King is a monument to race-based politics, and race-based politics is dying and King is dying,” said J. Eugene Grigsby, an urban planner who heads the National Health Foundation, an organization dedicated to finding innovative approaches to healthcare in underserved areas.

“We are a community looking for direction,” he said. “Until we recognize that the black community can’t survive unless it becomes interdependent with other communities, we will be increasingly marginalized.”

An L.A. renaissance

Black Los Angeles experienced a renaissance during the post-civil rights 1970s, a period of economic prosperity and political accomplishments, a period when some racial barriers were overcome.

South Los Angeles was still largely segregated, but more blacks were being elected to political office, among them Tom Bradley, who was elected to his first term as mayor of Los Angeles a year after King/Drew opened. The start of the massive influx of Latino immigrants was a decade away.

King/Drew, in Willowbrook just south of Watts, was part of that black renaissance, but almost from the beginning, the hospital was beset with problems, its medical accomplishments tarnished by a pattern of neglect and incompetence that over time earned the hospital the nickname “Killer King.” In 2005, the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a five-part series exposing conditions at the hospital, which was rated among the worst in the nation.

Many people assessing the hospital’s failings point to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes King/Drew, has been singled out for not having a plan to handle the various crises at the medical center.

“She repeatedly dropped the ball,” said Larry Aubry, a columnist at the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black-owned newspaper. “I don’t think she has made enough noise and hired enough people on her staff who could have made a difference at that hospital.”

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Burke, who was elected to the board in 1992, succeeding Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, has heard the criticism, but she says she doesn’t believe it’s her role to micromanage the hospital. “I don’t tell them who to hire and fire,” she said. “I’m not qualified to make those decisions. I have passed along my concerns.”

Reluctant to hold public meetings over the King/Drew crisis, Burke says that she has kept up communications with other elected officials and that her office is open to anyone who has a concern.

“I’m not interested in having a big town hall meeting for venting,” she said. “There will be enough opportunity for venting.”

Different approaches

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When the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that King/Drew had failed a make-or-break federal inspection in September, failing nine out of 23 government conditions for federal funding, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, (D-Carson), whose district includes the hospital, quickly contacted federal officials and held a packed town hall meeting at King/Drew to communicate with her constituents.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) dashed off a letter to the head of the agency. Signed by more than 20 California members of Congress, it asked for a 90-day extension for King/Drew. She also called her own town hall meeting a week later, inviting a large array of community leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Millender-McDonald didn’t attend Waters’ town hall meeting and refused to sign the letter.

“I couldn’t sign that letter,” Millender-McDonald explained, adding that she has been in direct communication with federal health officials. “It would go against my integrity, my credibility. I’m trying to get our hospital. I’m the one trying to keep those lines of communications open.”

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The Waters town hall meeting kicked off with a version of a protest song sung by demonstrators during the student sit-ins in the South four decades ago: “Ain’t going to let nobody turn us around, turn us around, turn us around.”

Then Waters spoke.

“We’ve been in this struggle for a long time,” she said. “They’ve thrown everything at us. The L.A. Times got a Pulitzer Prize. And now they want to close the whole thing down.

“Are we going to let them close down King/Drew? she asked the audience.

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“No,” the group responded.

” Are we going to let them close King/Drew?” she asked again. “I don’t think so,” she said, answering her own question.

Grigsby calls Waters an old-line activist who enjoys playing the race card.

“Her agenda is pro-black, anti-white and Mau Mau,” he said.

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The thought of the two town hall meetings held a week apart frustrated “Sweet” Alice Harris, a 70-year-old Watts activist who remembers collecting signatures after the Watts riots to convince politicians to build the hospital. Then, everyone seemed united on the need for a hospital, she recalled.

“If a child got hit by a car -- child’s head bust wide open -- it would take the ambulance two hours to get to us,” Harris said. “It was a mess.”

Now the prospect of seeing a downgrade of health services hurts.

“We have to come together, stop fighting one another,” she said. “One person stands up and the other person gets mad. You go to this one, the other gets mad. It is hurting us, and now it’s killing us. If they can’t get along with one another, they need to get out of the seat.”

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Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who attended Waters’ town hall meeting, said the push to salvage King/Drew lacks the energy of 20 or 30 years ago.

“You’ve lost the fire, lost the fuel in the engine, lost the advocacy,” the congresswoman said. “People have moved on. Let’s face it, King was neglected in many ways.”

When Supervisor Hahn, a big backer of King/Drew from the outset, left office, the hospital lost a strong advocate, said Watson, who ran for Hahn’s seat but was defeated by Burke.

“A new supervisor came in there who had not been in the area, had not been an advocate for the area and so let a whole lot of things slip by,” Watson said.

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‘We are fiddling’

In the city of Gardena, west of King/Drew, Councilman Steve Bradford sees the failures at the hospital as an indictment against a generation of black leaders.

“Constantly we hear the argument that we need folks to look like us to represent us,” said Bradford, whose mother was a nurse at King/Drew and whose first summer job was as a teenage intern there.

“We’ve had that, and services still have gone away,” he said. “We’ve had people who look like us and we’ve lost more than we’ve gained.... We’re snipping and sniping at one another, but at the end of the day, we are fiddling while Rome burns.”

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Added the Rev. Norman Johnson, of the First New Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles: “We have not produced enough new political talent, and the absence of that has created some sense of entitlement of folks who have been in office a long time.”

Said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, “You still have a small core of influential believers of the King/Drew mission, but the community has shifted away. Most of the middle-class African Americans who came from that community have moved on.”

Within a five-mile radius of the hospital, the African American population declined from 64% in 1980 to 35% in 2000, while Latinos increased from 25% to 59% over the same period, according to a Times analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the battle to keep King/Drew afloat continues to be waged predominantly by African Americans, suggesting to some an unwillingness to acknowledge that the hospital’s mission has changed.

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Political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson disagrees. The founder of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable and a passionate advocate for King/Drew said Latinos are not being excluded; rather, they are not getting involved.

“They see it as a black issue, not a Latino one,” Hutchinson said. “In their minds, they see no need to get involved in King Hospital even though it’s their folks who use the hospital. They haven’t done a thing, and quite frankly they are not going to do a thing.”

Not every assessment is so dire: Mark Q. Sawyer, director of UCLA’s Center for the study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, said poor blacks and poor Latinos have more in common with one another than they do with others, even in their own ethnic groups.

“They share similar problems, such as childhood obesity and diabetes,” he said. “They will be able to come together around issues of interdependence.”

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Michael Preston, USC professor of political science and observer of local politics, envisions a greater collaboration between blacks and Latinos in charting the hospital’s future, but that direction may have to wait for a younger generation of leaders.

“This is an issue of the older leadership. They fought for the hospital, and they are going to the bank on it,” he said. “The only way the younger ones are going to see it is if someone shines a light on it.”

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john.mitchell@latimes.com

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