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UC regents scheduled to take crucial vote on future of King Hospital [Updated]

November 19, 2009 |  9:17 am

[Updated at 10:45 a.m.: UC regents unanimously approved a partnership with L.A. County to reopen King Hospital.]

Members of the UC Board of Regents said they were “cautiously optimistic” that they would vote today to partner with Los Angeles County to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital.

King closed in 2007 after repeated findings that inadequate care at the facility led to patient injuries and deaths. Under the proposal the regents are scheduled to take up today, the county and the University of California would create a nonprofit entity to run the hospital, but the university would provide physician services and medical oversight.

“All of the regents are united in the moral imperative of this,” Sherry Lansing, who chairs the board’s committee on health services, said Wednesday. “But as you can see from today, we are facing financial difficulties.”

As she spoke, regents were voting to raise student fees as hundreds of students protested outside.

A partnership with the UC system is key to a plan to reopen the troubled hospital in South Los Angeles, but many hurdles would remain, including upward of $300 million in needed seismic repairs to the campus.

When the hospital shut down to in-patient and emergency services two years ago, county supervisors promised to have it operating again by this year. Earlier this month, county officials pushed back the reopening date again, this time to 2013. And the hospital they are planning to reopen will be considerably smaller, 120 beds instead of the 233 the facility once had.

John Stobo, senior vice president for health sciences and services for the UC system, said the agreement the regents are considering includes a promise from county officials to secure a $100-million letter of credit for six years, which will guarantee the $63 million a year it will cost to operate the hospital.

“That will go a long way toward addressing the regents’ concerns,” Stobo said.

Regent George Marcus, of the Palo Alto-based Marcus & Millichap Co. investment firm, had expressed doubts about the proposal’s financial stability. On Wednesday, Marcus said he was reassured by the hospital’s proposed nonprofit board structure, so that “if there’s a financial crisis, it doesn’t spill over to us, because we have our own financial crisis to deal with.”

Marcus said he expected the proposal to “sail through” today.

An offer by Los Angeles pharmaceutical billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong to underwrite the proposal with a $100-million guaranty has not been vetted by UC lawyers and is not part of the proposal the regents will vote on, Stobo said. Soon-Shiong, however, is expected to appear at today’s meeting, as are Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes the hospital; Supervisor Don Knabe, who chairs the board, and the county’s chief executive, William T. Fujioka.

“Our sense is that we are ready to move this partnership forward,” Ridley-Thomas said, adding, “As soon as this vote is taken, we will be working feverishly on design issues and construction.”

The new hospital would include an emergency room and three operating rooms but no trauma center, a sore point with some supporters. Ridley-Thomas said it would have taken up to four additional years to reopen with a trauma center and “the need for services is now.”

On Wednesday, leaders of six Southern California health foundations, including Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Catholic Healthcare West and the California Endowment, sent a letter to the regents urging them to approve the proposal.

“South Los Angeles faces some of the most daunting challenges and greatest health disparities of any community in the state,” said Bob Ross, president and chief executive of the California Endowment, who plans to speak at today's meeting. “There simply are not enough hospital beds to meet the community’s need and that is unacceptable. The residents of South Los Angeles deserve better, and this partnership holds the promise that they will get it.”

Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science had used King as a teaching hospital, and after the hospital became an ambulatory care center, students continued to treat patients there and at other hospitals. It is not clear what Drew's role will be once the hospital reopens.

“We hope to be a part of the solution and part of the healthcare workforce” at King, said Drew’s president, Dr. Keith Norris, who is also on the UCLA faculty.

Under the proposal, UC would assume responsibility for training and supervising medical students, residents and fellows at the hospital. Stobo said university officials do not plan to “exclude Drew,” nor do they plan to create a new medical school.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said physicians will need to demonstrate they can deliver quality care at King before it becomes a teaching hospital again.

“We’re going to have to reestablish a medical community here,” Block said. “The training opportunities -- all that comes later.”

Block said he expects most of the physicians at King will come from UCLA and UC Irvine. He said that fits with UCLA’s goal of providing care to underserved communities such as South L.A. He said the UCLA medical community supports the proposal.

“We need to provide a broader array of services like what we expect here on the Westside,” in South L.A., Block said.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske reporting from Westwood