Lost Hospital — Martin Luther King Jr./King Drew Medical Center, Watts, California0

The proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, a phrase borrowed from Greek mythology, in some ways describes the origins of Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital in Watts, California. Spurred by the 1965 Watts Riots, then-California governor Pat Brown appointed a Commission to identify the causes of the civil unrest.

One of the major findings in the 1965 McCone Report was that this low income area in South Central Los Angeles County lacked health care access (the closest public trauma center was Los Angeles County — USC Medical Center).

With the assistance of California’s Department of Health Services (DHS), the County of Los Angeles, the medical schools at University of Southern California, University of California at Los Angeles, and the newly formed Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School (Drew Medical School), construction began for the new hospital in April 1978. Originally named Los Angeles County Southeast General Hospital but then changed to Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital, the hospital opened on March 27, 1972 as a full-service medical center.

The facility changed names to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center  (“King/Drew”) when it became the teaching hospital of Drew Medical School. By 1981 the hospital expanded into psychiatric care, and in 1998 the Hospital opened its trauma center. From the beginning, the hospital was source of pride and jobs in the community.

In the beginning of the 21st century, however, King/Drew faced increasing troubles. In disclosing the problems at King/Drew, the Los Angeles Times earned a Pulitzer Prize for its series of reports.

In January 2004, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) deemed King/Drew “out of compliance” with standards for federal funding eligibility, threatening the Hospital’s Medicare and Medicaid revenue.  By March CMS heightened their warning to that of “immediate jeopardy”, meaning that in the opinion of CMS, patients at King/Drew were at risk for harm or death due to medication errors.  Although CMS threatened to revoke federal funding for King/Drew (about $200 million annually for the Hospital at the time), no immediate action was taken.

In September 2004, DHS recommended that King/Drew close its trauma unit, which the Hospital did in early 2005.  Soon thereafter the Joint Commission revoked the accreditation for King/Drew.

By November 2004, community leaders formed strong, local resistance to the proposed closing of King/Drew. Despite the protests, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors finally approved the closure. After a brief legal disruption in the closure proceedings, King/Drew closed in early 2005 and the patients were dispersed among three other Los Angeles County hospitals.

Since then, state and county officials have tried different restructuring plans in an attempt to reopen the facility. Placed under the management of nearby Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, King/Drew was renamed King-Harbor, the facility eliminated several specialty services, and the hospital severed its ties to Drew Medical School. While these efforts appeased federal officials temporarily, Drew Medical School filed a $125 million lawsuit against Los Angeles County.

The clinical problems at renamed King-Harbor soon resurfaced, however, in May 2007, leading to a multi-day inspection by state and federal officials. On June 7, 2007, federal health officials stated King-Harbor was in violation of state and federal regulations, and they gave the Hospital 23 days to take corrective action. On June 21, 2007, DHS initiated the process to revoke King-Harbor’s license.

On August 10, 2007, after the hospital failed a comprehensive review by CMS, federal officials revoked King-Harbor’s $200 million in federal funding. By 7 p.m. that same day, King-Harbor’s Emergency Department was closed and ambulances diverted to other area hospitals.  On August 27, the rest of King-Harbor closed.

Without the hospital, the facility continued to operate as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center, an urgent care facility and outpatient clinic. At the same time, Los Angeles County officials immediately tried to find ways to reopen the Hospital. An initial plan to reopen in 2009 failed. Los Angeles County then partnered with the University of California system to create a nonprofit hospital governed by a seven-member board of directors, not the County of Los Angeles.

The hospital is expected to reopen sometime in the next few years (see architectural design concept to the left) as a smaller facility (120 beds compared to 537 it had at one point in time) with an emergency department and operating rooms.

Only time will tell when this occurs, and exactly what will rise from the proverbial ashes of the former Martin Luther King Jr./King Drew Medical Center.

Photo from Calisphere,  CBS NewsLos Angeles Times, and HMC Architects.

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