Bill Boyarsky
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Ridley-Thomas and the future of MLK Jr. hospital

As Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas sees it, the new Martin Luther King Jr. hospital will transform health care for the poor in South Los Angeles and maybe even for the nation.

I talked to the supervisor, who represents South L.A.,, where the hospital was built after the Watts Riot to serve the poor. It has been closed for three years because of its often fatal care of patients. Last year, the Board of Supervisors and the University of California signed an agreement to reopen the hospital under UC supervision.
Ridley-Thomas told me the new 120 -bed hospital, smaller than the old one, will be completed by the end of 2012, and open for patients at the beginning of the following year. A new health clinic is also under construction.

A great weakness of the old hospital was a poorly trained and indifferent staff, all but immune from discipline because of union contracts, county civil service rules and incompetent administrators. When anyone attempted to crack down, the unions would go whining to the Board of Supervisors. In addition, longtime leaders of the African American community felt they had a proprietary interest in the hospital and resisted any change. As the neighborhood became more Latino, L.A.’s racial politics got involved.

Ridley-Thomas noted that the new hospital would be run by a non-profit public -private organization headed by a seven person board, two members named by UC, two by the supervisors and three by both the university and the supervisors. UC would supervise doctors and residents. The hospital board would be in charge of the rest of the staff. The new board and its administrators would bargain with the unions. The supervisors would be out of the picture. Hopefully, this would shield the new enterprise from political pressure.

“They will be employees of the new entity, hired by this non profit entity. The doctors will be hired and overseen by UC, “ Ridley-Thomas said.

I asked what would happen if the unions think the non-profit board is too hard-line in labor negotiations complain to Ridley-Thomas “because you are the supervisor of the district and they supported you financially and in every way in your election campaign?” I wondered if he would tell them “ that’s the (hospital) board’s decision”.

“Exactly. By design,“ the supervisor said.

Ridley-Thomas said another transformative change will be the new hospital’s effort to attract private patients with health insurance. Previously patients had largely been the uninsured poor or Medicaid recipients.

“The success of this will be measured by the patient mix itself,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Those with private insurance will take advantage of this new facility; it will be that attractive. The county’s mandate is to care for the medically indigent but I think in this context you will see people who have the capacity to pay. This is a very, very significant development that will send a message far and wide and has implications for this being a model for the nation.”

Private, paying patients, he said, get better service, often because they have family and friends who constantly complain about bad food and care. “It will transform the culture of this environment. And that’s what I mean that it is transformative,” he said.

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