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Medical workers and patients surrounding King Harbor Hospital Monday were closed mouthed about their feelings on the emergency room closure. The front entrance to the building that used to serve as a drop off point for emergency cases was mostly empty, save for a few people waiting for non-emergency care. Security guards inside said that urgent care would remain open and another worker said he and other employees really didn’t know the status of their jobs.
However, county health director, Bruce Chernoff in a letter to the supervisors August 13 said clinical staff not required to maintain services will be reassigned first to meet staffing needs for the replacement beds at other medical facilities.
“After these needs are met,” he explained,” remaining clinical staff will be reassigned to other County health facilities. Administrative and support staff not needed to run the outpatient services or to implement this significant transition will be subject to a workforce reduction plan...”
Federal regulators made a final decision Friday to pull two hundred million dollars in funding out from under King Harbor hospital leaving one of Los Angeles’ most underserved neighborhoods without a medical facility. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services officials made the announcement via a letter to hospital administrator Antoinette Epps. The Medicare provider agreement was terminated effective August 15, they said.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters rallied the community for a massive meeting on the hospital grounds the following day where hundreds of supporters, community leaders, and elected officials vowed to fight to sustain hospital operations.
“I am extremely disappointed that the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has chosen to revoke funding for a hospital serving the poorest and sickest people in Los Angeles County.” Waters said at the rally.
“I am also disappointed and disturbed that the citizens of Los Angeles, Watts, Willowbrook, Lynwood, Carson and other communities will suffer with no local health care.”
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke whose district houses King Harbor, said the County’s “immediate task was to implement the Department of Health Services’ contingency plan, which includes an orderly and least disruptive transfer of patients, employees and services.”
In a special Monday meeting, Burke and the other County supervisors said they would want Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital to reopen within one year. Health officials were asked to find a private operator within three months to ensure medical care is available to the mostly low-income residents near the facility.
“I’ve already heard people making threats like “you think ‘65 was something...,’” South Central resident Cliff McLain said only half jokingly referring to the Watts Riots. “Some people are feeling ‘it’s the same old thing, we always suffer the brunt of whatever.’”
“If folks were really thinking, they would have said to some people, ‘help us out.’ I’m sure it could have been salvaged,” he said.
CMS officials disagreed apparently, stating that it has “worked with the administration of MLK-Harbor and the Los Angeles County Health Department for the past three years in the interest of the health care needs of South Los Angeles residents.
“[We have] provided technical assistance and allowed ample time for the hospital to plan and implement the measures necessary to achieve and maintain compliance with Medicare health and safety standards. Repeated certification surveys and complaint investigations have identified serious health and safety violations,” they said.
But, countered Assemblymem-ber Merv Dymally who has also been a staunch hospital supporter, In testimony before the Select Committee on King-Drew Medical Center in 2003, Dr. Thomas Garthwaite of the Los Angeles County of Department of Health Services stated then that in order to balance the budget deficit, one hospital was going to have to close in its system. So you see, the decision was made some time ago by the powers that be to close King Hospital.
“I am sure that the community surrounding King Hospital would agree, that if there is any community that needs a hospital, it’s South Los Angeles. I am hopeful that we can all work together to rally around AB 55 (a bill that would create a hospital authority to keep King Hospital open.)”
Martin Luther King Medical Center opened its doors a few years after the 1965 Watts Riots revealed the severity of the lives of poor people who lived in the area. The county-run hospital has suffered scrutiny for years but most recently came under fire after a series of Los Angeles Times articles highlighted a myriad of problems within the institution. Waters had been very vocal with her outrage at the articles, stating that the Times was “seeking a Pulitzer Prize on the backs of the poor.”
Community leaders and residents were pulling for the hospital before it suffered what was seen as a final blow recently when a patient died on the emergency room floor while being ignored by hospital personnel. Last year 50,000 patients received care in MLK’s emergency room.
“There have been people who could have helped out and done whatever was necessary to help out,” McLain said.
“It’s not only going to impact the Watts community. It’s going to impact all of the hospitals... folks have to go somewhere, so everybody’s going to feel the pinch.”
Hospitals to take up patients will most likely be Harbor UCLA in Torrance, California Hospital Medical Center, Centinela-Freeman, Downey, Kaiser Permanente-Bellflower, St. Francis in nearby Lynwood and White Memorial. Burke said she would be conducting an outreach program to inform residents of their options.
“There have been reports that ambulances have been unable to transport patients to other facilities due to over-crowding and congestion on our freeways,” Waters said.
“Furthermore,” she added, “some of those alternate hospitals cannot serve us and some do not want us.”