Community activists worried about the future of beleaguered Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center opened a new campaign Saturday -- to preserve the iconic public hospital’s name despite plans for a major restructuring.
“The King/Drew name is cherished in this community,” Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said at a news conference on the spacious front lawn of the long-troubled public hospital south of Watts.
Faced with a crippling loss of federal funding after the Los Angeles County-owned hospital failed a crucial inspection last month, the county Board of Supervisors has agreed in principle to dramatically reduce beds and services at King/Drew. Supervisors would put it under the management of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, another county hospital about 10 miles away, where patients could obtain the services no longer available at King/Drew.
In a memo to supervisors outlining his proposal to keep King/Drew afloat and remedy its shortcomings, the head of the county’s Department of Health Services referred to the scaled-down facility he envisions as Harbor-MLK Community Hospital.
“This grossly diminishes the [medical and symbolic] importance of Dr. King and the hospital to people of color,” Eddie Jones, president of the Los Angeles Civil Rights Assn., said at Saturday’s news conference.
County health services spokesman Michael Wilson said the Harbor-MLK moniker is not official but “sort of a working name that’s being used right now.” Any official name change would require approval from the Board of Supervisors, he added.
Whatever the new name might be, Wilson said, it must convey to federal, state and local officials, not to mention community members, that the hospital is under the administrative and medical control of Harbor-UCLA, provided that supervisors approve the final plan.
The issue is contentious because the hospital was built several years after the 1965 Watts riots and has from its early days been a symbol of hope to the impoverished and underserved minority neighborhoods nearby. It was named after the slain civil rights leader and also pays tribute to Dr. Charles R. Drew, an African American physician noted for developing blood plasma. It has always been affiliated with the nearby university named after Drew, although officials have proposed severing that tie.
On Saturday, Hutchinson and others urged residents and hospital staff members to call the offices of Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes the hospital, and county health services chief Bruce A. Chernof and urge them to keep the name.
Supervisors are expected to vote on Chernof’s reorganization plan in less than two weeks.
“We want them to know [the name] is nonnegotiable,” Hutchinson said.
Cherise Payne, a member of the Los Angeles Civil Rights Assn., agreed.
“Dr. King left an enduring legacy, and we must keep his name on the hospital,” she said at the news conference.
James Bolden, a spokesman for Burke, said the board has “not had any discussion” about a name change. Burke is aware that would cause consternation in the community and she would want to keep both leaders in the hospital’s name, Bolden said.
Lita Herron, another participant in Saturday’s news conference, said she blames supervisors for allowing King/Drew to fall into crisis.
“I’m very disgusted ... at the failure of leadership,” Herron said. “Clearly the failure of this hospital began at the top,” she added, “but the community is paying the price.”
Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.