A majority of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has indicated that it favors handing over management of imperiled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, a more stable county facility about 10 miles away.
The supervisors have been scrambling for a solution since federal regulators told King/Drew a week ago that they would cut off crucial funding at the end of the year because of continued lapses in patient care.
Of the options presented so far, “I think that Harbor would be what I would support,” Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes King/Drew, said Thursday. “Obviously, Harbor is a hospital in my district that I believe has a very high quality.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and a spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich voiced similar sentiments. It is the one plan that seems to have “sustainability,” Yaroslavsky said.
The county Department of Health Services is set to release its recommendations Tuesday. Although many details remain to be worked out, including what will happen to King/Drew’s 2,238 employees, state hospital regulators have shown “a considerable receptivity to” the general idea of Harbor taking control, Yaroslavsky said.
Harbor-UCLA officials, who must ultimately follow the direction of the Board of Supervisors, declined to comment Thursday. Harbor, a larger public hospital near Torrance, has not had anywhere near the regulatory woes of King/Drew, and data show it to be a more efficient operation.
Federal regulators have not weighed in on the Harbor option but have indicated that King/Drew must make major changes if it hopes to receive U.S. funding in the future. Since January 2004, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has repeatedly cited the hospital for lapses in care that have injured or killed patients.
The hospital collects about $200 million annually -- nearly half its budget -- for treating Medicare and Medi-Cal patients.
“What we’re about to undertake is a radical reformation of how healthcare is delivered in the southern part of Los Angeles,” Yaroslavsky said. “Everything we’ve done up till now has been incremental in trying to fix the hospital.”
In other developments Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged his help to keep King/Drew open.
“They have great challenges, but we are going to do everything we can to provide help and assistance” to ensure continued operation, he said during a bill signing in Pasadena.
The hospital has enormous symbolic significance, especially to many African Americans, because it was founded after the 1965 Watts riots to meet the health needs of the largely impoverished and minority neighborhoods in the South L.A. area.
The state’s role will be to assist the county once it chooses a plan -- perhaps by helping to gain federal approval -- rather than to actively suggest solutions, California’s top health official said. The Schwarzenegger administration has not offered state funds to make up for those King/Drew is scheduled to lose.
“The ball is really in the county’s court right now to pick a path,” said Sandra Shewry, director of the California Department of Health Services.
Exactly how the new King/Drew might be configured remains uncertain, although Yaroslavsky said he envisions it as a pared-down community hospital with an emergency room.
It is also unclear if the hospital will still be affiliated with Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, the only historically black medical school west of the Mississippi. Yaroslavsky and an aide to Supervisor Gloria Molina said Thursday they thought King/Drew should be independent of the university.
Molina “wants a fresh start,” said deputy chief of staff Gerry Hertzberg. Other supervisors are waiting for more details of the plan before they decide.
Officials at the university declined to comment, saying only that they were prepared to work with the county and are developing their own contingency plans for about 300 residents who are training at King/Drew. They are looking into partnerships with other hospitals, a statement issued Tuesday said.
County health officials declined to discuss specifics of their proposal to be unveiled next week. “We’re talking with all the key players as we work through the details, but it’s too early at this point to speculate on any specifics,” health department spokesman Michael Wilson said in a statement.
Officials have indicated, however, that their two main options are handing King/Drew’s operations to another county facility or finding a private operator. Given the tight time frame, negotiations with a private company might be impractical, county officials have said.
In Washington, some members of California’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the federal government asking officials to delay the funding cut 90 days to give the county time to find new management for King/Drew. The letter’s 22 signers, all Democrats, included Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, a vocal backer of the medical center; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco; Reps. Howard Berman of Valley Village, Diane Watson of Los Angeles, Henry Waxman of Los Angeles; and others.
At King/Drew, in Willowbrook south of Watts, organizers of a petition drive to save the hospital said they had gathered more than 1,000 signatures in three days.
“Poor people came to us and asked, ‘What can we do to save this hospital?’ ” said lead organizer Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. “We decided to do a petition to show the supervisors that thousands of community residents are demanding that everything possible should be done to keep King a public hospital.”
He said the “Mend It/Don’t End It King Hospital Petition” drive will continue over the weekend.
Deneen Francis signed the petition after leaving the medical center, where her three children had received checkups.
“The lives of too many people depend on this hospital,” said Francis, whose 18-year-old was treated for a gunshot wound in July. “This hospital saved my son.”
Also Thursday, a coalition of healthcare providers, clergy and elected officials assembled at the governor’s district office in downtown Los Angeles and asked Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency. Many noted that emergency services would be strained already because of the imminent closure of the emergency room at the Memorial campus of Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center in Inglewood.
“It is absolutely essential that both be kept open,” Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn said of the two ERs. “If we can send money all over the world to help others and protect others, then certainly we can do it in the county of Los Angeles and the state of California.”
Advocates did not seek specific resources from the governor, only his help in mobilizing resources to aid the facilities.
Shewry said the governor is not prepared to issue an emergency declaration because King/Drew remains open and county officials do not believe such a move is necessary.
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.