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Health renaissance in South L.A.


On Friday, doctors and community members will participate in a ceremony to dedicate the new Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital (MLK) in South Los Angeles. But probably only a few in the crowd will know the full phoenix-rising-from-the-flames story behind this gleaming new facility.

Let’s go back 50 years. In August 1965, Watts erupted in riots before the nation’s eyes. Civil rights leaders pointed out the lack of affordable quality health services for the Black community, and channeled their frustration through the Gov. Pat Brown-created McCone Commission, which concluded that South Los Angeles lacked the infrastructure to provide accessible, quality healthcare.

Several years after the Watts civil unrest, the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital and the Charles R. Drew University opened, creating two community-based health institutions—one to treat patients, and the second to train health professionals. For the first time, the poorest and most underserved residents of South Los Angeles could get better access to quality, affordable healthcare.

This inspiring tale of community health empowerment came to a crashing halt in May 2007.  An emergency room patient at MLK hospital, Edith Rodriguez, died after lying in a pool of her own blood for more than 45 minutes on the floor of the waiting room. Community outrage followed; as did in-depth reporting by the L.A. Times on the extent of the situation.

Anecdotes emerged detailing a litany of failed opportunities by county government to address quality-of-care issues; use of the discomforting phrase “Killer King,” previously jokingly used by local residents, became part of the hospital’s history. It was a moniker as chilling as it was oxymoronic. The hospital closed.

Not long afterward, neighboring Charles Drew University, which over the decades had trained thousands of quality health professionals, was wracked by financial and administrative challenges, and quietly faced financial ruin and loss of accreditation.

The troubles at these two institutions unfolded against a backdrop of issues faced by low-income, distressed communities around the state of California—rising numbers of uninsured Americans, growing numbers of undocumented and immigrant families walled off from healthcare and disproportionately high—even savage—rates of stroke, diabetes, cancer, untreated mental illness and other diseases.

The proliferation of street gangs and a nasty crack cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s propelled health inequities from bad to worse.  A report commissioned by our foundation in 2007 found that South L.A. residents were 50 percent more likely to describe their health as only “fair” or “poor” than other residents countywide.

But today, the health future of these South Los Angeles institutions looks decidedly brighter. While it is quite premature to hang out any “mission accomplished” banners, a tale of action-oriented optimism has unfolded. It runs counter to the idea that L.A. is just too big, too unwieldy, and too bureaucratic to get anything done. This is a story of leadership, public-private partnering, and teamwork.

County supervisors came together to give the University of California and UCLA a more supportive role in the hospital, as part of an effort to make the hospital a public-private partnership.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was elected in 2008, displayed dogged determination and tremendous leadership to fulfill his campaign promise to bring a new, state-of-the-art hospital to the community.

With his election and the arrival of county health services chief Dr. Mitch Katz, a newfound sense of energetic accountability on behalf of MLK Hospital and Charles Drew institutions is now at the helm politically and managerially. What has emerged is a new MLK community hospital, with the right kind of political support for an independently and expertly managed health institution.

Dr. Elaine Batchelor, CEO of the hospital, throughout her career, has focused on greater access to quality care for underserved communities. Meanwhile, the Charles Drew University Board of Directors upgraded its talent and hired a calm, competent servant-leader named Dr. David Carlisle.

From a financial and administrative perspective, the ship known as Charles Drew University has been righted.  Academic accreditation at Drew has recently been fully restored. Leaders of both institutions are well-regarded African American health leaders.

The philanthropic sector, buoyed by this combination of public sector and civic stewardship, has begun to respond. Over the past three years, more than a dozen private funders, including the California Endowment, have invested resources in MLK and Drew. Alongside the re-energized MLK and Drew institutions, the effective implementation of Obamacare and expansion of the state Medi-Cal program has seen the regional network of community health centers flex their muscle to advance primary care services and prevention, and reduce the numbers of uninsured in the neighborhoods of South L.A.

What does all of this mean for a family struggling with health in South Los Angeles? A brand new hospital with the latest available health technology to meet their care needs; a resurgent school of health professions to provide community-based, culturally-relevant, high-quality services; and a more vibrantly engaged set of public and private sector leaders willing to assert accountability and responsibility to stakeholders of Watts and South Los Angeles.

At this week’s dedication ceremony, let’s not just celebrate this gorgeous new hospital. Let’s also quietly celebrate what brought it back: The triad of leadership, partnership, and accountability. This is an object lesson for a region aspiring for greater heights.

—Dr. Robert K. Ross

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