In 1966, one year after the Watts riots illuminated the scarcity of health care services in South Los Angeles, 25-year-old Leonard Deadwyler lay mortally wounded in his car, shot by a police officer who insisted Deadwyler was drunk instead of what he was: A husband rushing his pregnant wife to a hospital nearly 20 miles away.
Los Angeles County leaders reacted to the riots and Deadwyler's passing by building what became known as Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, a full-scale teaching hospital, complete with trauma center, which opened in 1972.
The hospital became an icon in the community. Yet in 2007, the county shut down King/Drew after years of gross mismanagement, preventable patient deaths and other scandals. That left the mostly Latino and African American residents of Watts and surrounding neighborhoods in the same predicament as Deadwyler four decades earlier: No nearby emergency room or inpatient facility, and a dearth of other medical services.
But sometime in 2014, the community, its political leaders and county officials are hoping for a do-over – the opening of a new, smaller community hospital featuring a basic emergency room and digital storage of patient records.
They also hope the new facility's unusual governing structure will help it avoid the pitfalls that bedeviled King/Drew.
"We think we're on the right path to create a successful, high-quality, patient-centered health care system here," said Dr. Elaine Batchlor, chief executive officer of the new institution, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital.
Manny A. Abascal, chairman of the board of the nonprofit foundation that will oversee the new facility, said the hospital will be free of political influence.
"We're all just private citizens, and we have full control over the quality of the hospital," Abascal said. "Some people would say the prior hospital's management had challenges because of political influences or other influences and the like. And I think we've really addressed that by having a fully independent governing board that will be able to make decisions based solely on what's in the best interest of the hospital and the patients and the standard of quality we want to uphold."
King/Drew, located in the Willowbrook neighborhood, was more than a hospital. It was a symbol of the 1960s civil rights struggle, an employment center and a medical provider in an area where doctors were scarce and much of the populace was uninsured. Run by the county Department of Health Services, it also provided hands-on training for medical students from the adjacent Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
But somewhere along the line, King/Drew faltered – so badly that it became known in the community as "Killer King" – endangering people's health.
Federal inspectors found that the hospital failed to ensure a safe environment for its patients, which led to several deaths blamed on poor nursing care. The county shut down the trauma center after a certification group found that the unit's leadership didn't identify and correct serious flaws. After reports of rampant employee absenteeism, prescription drug thefts, extraordinary rates of medical malpractice payments, insufficient training, and repeated examples of patients left to suffer or even die without adequate care, the county closed the hospital in 2007.
The shuttering of King/Drew, whose emergency room in 2006 drew 44,300 visits, placed an immediate strain on nearby hospitals, the closest of which is about six miles away.
It wasn't certain that a new facility would rise from the mess. But in late 2009, the county and the University of California struck a bargain: The county would finance construction of a smaller-scale hospital and its operations, while UCLA would provide the doctors to staff it. The foundation was established, and the county and UC made the first appointments to its board. Future appointments are to be made by the board itself, though the hospital's chief medical officer will be chosen by UC.
"We wanted to make it clear that this was a community-based hospital to serve the community and run by service-minded, responsible community citizens, and not run by UC and not run by L.A. County," said Dr. John Stobo, UC's senior vice president for health sciences and services.
The new MLK will have 133 inpatient beds, about 100 fewer than King/Drew.
The emergency room is projected to draw 30,000 visits per year. The hospital will offer obstetrics, gynecology, endocrinology, urology, radiology and anesthesiology, among others. But pediatrics, psychiatry and specialized surgery services won't be available.
One highlight will be its digital ties with nearby clinics and physicians, allowing patient records to be shared among medical providers. Officials hope to integrate care so that the transition of patients among facilities, follow-up appointments and preventative care are more seamless.
It is no easy undertaking to fashion a new hospital out of the ruins of an old one, said Abascal, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Latham & Watkins and co-chair of its litigation department. Some friends advised him against trying, citing the politics and the difficulties involved.
"I have to say those doubts really inspired me to get involved," Abascal added. "This is very much worth doing. So the fact that it was difficult or people doubted that we could succeed really motivated me rather than scared me off."