Ridley- Thomas to revisit hospital options

Therolf is a Times staff writer.

For six months, Los Angeles County supervisors have courted the University of California as their last, best hope to reopen Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital.

Then Mark Ridley-Thomas was sworn in this week as the newest board member. He immediately signaled that, as far as the troubled hospital in his district is concerned, he wants to be considered the first among equals.

Ridley-Thomas’ arrival changes the dynamic on one of the board’s longest-running and most vexing problems. Even before taking his seat at his first board meeting Tuesday, the former state senator appeared outside the long-troubled facility in Willowbrook to say he plans to start virtually from square one.


“We do have to get clear about who is on first base,” he said. “Someone has to lead. Others have to support. I’m prepared to lead.”

He said he will abandon the county’s singular focus on the university and investigate all options anew. He wants to ensure that the facility reopens as a teaching hospital with a Level 1 trauma center and said he is open to sharing control with an outside partner.

It is unclear how that approach will be received by his four colleagues -- who either stayed mum or campaigned against him during his battle with Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks for the seat.

During interviews this week, Supervisors Don Knabe, Gloria Molina, Zev Yaroslavsky and a spokesman for Supervisor Michael Antonovich said they remain unified behind bringing in the University of California.

King-Harbor shut down emergency and inpatient services after repeated failures to meet minimum standards for patient care resulted in a loss of federal funding in August 2007. Clinic services are still available.

County leaders began focusing on partnering with the university system after nine months of fruitlessly exploring alternatives. But Ridley-Thomas has expressed doubts about such a partnership, even while promising to do everything he can to be helpful.

“I think there’s an earnest effort underway with the university. I don’t find a need to be disruptive, nor do I wish to derail something that shows promise,” he said in an interview. “It will have to be proved to me that it is promising. That has yet to happen.”

His fellow supervisors said that while the talks remain fragile -- the university is reluctant to commit to a hospital with such a troubled history and high number of uninsured patients -- they are making progress. Yaroslavsky, who unveiled the plan in an editorial published in The Times in May, said he is “more optimistic about a deal today than I was when I wrote the piece . . . The county is still focused on the UC option.”

Meetings on the possible partnership occur weekly and have sometimes included Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and UC President Mark G. Yudof. Still unresolved, however, are central matters such as how such a hospital would be governed and financed.

“It’s not something that can be negotiated overnight,” Knabe said. “I’m very hopeful that we’ll have something to announce soon.”

But the state government’s worsening finances have complicated matters.

“The UC system is cutting freshmen,” Molina noted. “That says they don’t have enough money to run their operations.”

Another factor, largely unspoken but perhaps equally important, is the issue of labor. The union local that represented employees at the hospital and continues to represent those at the remaining clinic, Service Employees International Union 721, has sought assurances that it will continue to do so if the hospital reopens.

The SEIU spent millions in support of Ridley-Thomas during his campaign, and an SEIU 721 official stood at his side Tuesday on the hospital’s lawn when he reiterated his call for the facility’s reopening.

A different union, however, represents workers at existing University of California hospitals -- and university officials have quietly let it be known that they are reluctant to work with SEIU 721 and the civil-service protections the local has won from the county.

Ridley-Thomas said he has offered no guarantees to SEIU, and some of his supporters expect to hold him to that promise.

“He’s aware of the kind of help labor can give him but at the same time he is conscious of how people will be watching his brand of leadership closely,” said Robert K. Ross, president and chief executive of the California Endowment, a private foundation created to expand healthcare access.

Ross, one of the most influential outside voices on the hospital and a Ridley-Thomas advisor, said the new supervisor “injects jet fuel” into the push to reopen.

Ridley-Thomas took a key step Tuesday when he asked county staff to develop a cost estimate to bring the facility up to date on seismic safety requirements -- a task that carries a multimillion dollar price tag and would need to be resolved no matter who reopens the hospital.

Already, some of his colleagues are warning that the tough economy may make it difficult to find the funds.

Ridley-Thomas emphatically rejected that notion. “It is simply too unacceptable to say there is no money,” he said. “The hospital has to be reopened. Not to do so is to put the people of Los Angeles County at greater risk than it already is.”