L.A. Now

County supervisors OK $29 million more for MLK hospital

County leaders approved $29 million in new spending on rebuilding a long-awaited hospital in South Los Angeles on Tuesday, but held back from paying all that county officials had sought.

The action brings the total price tag of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital to $281.4 million.

The funding will pay for "unforeseen" problems in the inpatient tower, such as repairing water damage, bringing utilities up to seismic codes and rebuilding deteriorating sewer pipes. Three floors of the inpatient towers were occupied as planners designed the project, so the problems were not discovered until renovation of the tower began. Some of the money could also be used to fund overtime and weekend work to meet the Oct. 31 deadline to complete construction of the hospital, which is scheduled to begin accepting patients in late 2014 or early 2015.

The additional spending approved 4 to 0 by the Board of Supervisors was $3 million less than county managers had sought. Three of the four supervisors present expressed concern that the size of the contingency fund would create a prime target for the contractors who are rebuilding the hospital and would weaken the county's negotiating posture.

"We all play poker in our own ways. You don't show your hole card, you just never do that," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told staff members with the Department of Public Works. "I'm not sure we're driving a harder bargain."

Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas grew frustrated by the "quibbling" over the size of the contingency fund, and said his colleagues were losing sight of how close they were to reopening a hospital in South Los Angeles, which has been without an emergency room and inpatient care since the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center was closed in 2007 after gross lapses in patient care.

"We're in the weeds," Ridley-Thomas said. "I think it's time to move. Point blank."

In addition to trimming the contingency fund, the board also directed the chief executive officer to report in one week on how that money will be spent. At that point, CEO William T Fujioka said officials should be able to determine whether they will need the additional $3 million.

But some in the audience remained concerned about the mounting cost overruns — the project was initially budgeted at $237 million.

"You know, I have really looked at what's going on at MLK and something very, very wrong [is] going on," registered nurse Genevieve Clavreul said during the public testimony portion of the meeting. "I hope that someone in high authority will demand an audit…. Because we're talking about millions" in unanticipated spending.

County officials have also been criticized for delays in reopening the hospital, forcing South Los Angeles residents to drive to hospitals in Long Beach, Inglewood, downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere to get emergency and inpatient care.

After the 4-0 vote, Ridley-Thomas, who represents the area, said that the final result — a medical complex with a focus on preventive care in addition to inpatient services — will be the envy of public health officials across the nation.

"I really think it's important to understand that this is more than a hospital," he said in an interview, noting again that it will contain a variety of outpatient services. "If it takes a little more time to get more than what was anticipated, I can live with that. But it will not be second-rate healthcare for the people of this portion of our county. It will be as good as it can possibly get. That's why we're taking care to build a first-rate, 21st century medical village."

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