Los Angeles’ Martin Luther King, Jr. – Harbor Hospital Shows the Cost of Government Monopoly Health Care

Earlier this month, state and local officials announced an agreement to re-open the Martin Luther King, Jr.-Harbor Hospital in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2012. For four decades, Los Angeles’ most vulnerable, low-income patients suffered terribly because of the county’s management of this failed hospital, which finally closed all in-patient services in August, 2007.

As all levels of American government seek to increase their control over our health care, the tragic saga of King-Harbor Hospital is a proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” signaling the human cost of government-controlled health care.

Los Angeles County opened King-Harbor after the Watts riots of 1965. It was known locally, and for good reason, as “Killer King,” but never faced financial problems until lapses in care caused the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to revoke $200 million in federal funding for the hospital in 2007. The woman who died of a perforated bowel after writhing on the ER floor for 45 minutes would have been better served if county supervisors had been accountable to her and her family, instead of CMS bureaucrats in Baltimore.

CMS finally terminated King-Harbor’s Medicare contract after an inspection, which reported that diagnostic reports were lost, flexible endoscopes (instruments that touch mucous membranes or non-intact skin) were not cleaned and stored properly, and suicidal patients were able to seize scalpels and lock themselves in bathrooms. Nor were these shortcomings due to a lack of policies and procedures. Indeed, the “Quality Assurance Data Binder” was a full four inches thick.

Horrified, the county shut down the ER and inpatient wards, reorganized ambulance services and sent medical staff to nine neighboring private hospitals. Although the county promised to re-open inpatient services under contract with a private operator, powerful interests have blocked any progress. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), local 721, which represents Los Angeles County’s health workers, fears loss of representation if the hospital comes under private control.

Given its disgraceful record, any private operator would be reasonably skittish at having to accept the union back into the facility. But as recently as April, 2008, one such operator was willing to take the risk. Unfortunately, self-styled “community activists” blocked the county from entering into a contract to re-open the hospital’s in-patient services, arguing that: “The 184-bed Pacific Hospital of Long Beach is simply too small and untested in the task of running such a complicated institution as a large public hospital, and the attempt is likely to fail.”

Absent further interest from private operators, Gov. Schwarzenegger and other politicians pressured the University of California medical system to take over King-Harbor last June. That sounded like a fine idea. The UC, after all, has great medical schools and oversees residency programs at Harbor-UCLA and Olive View-UCLA. Faculty from UCSF medical school fully staff San Francisco General Hospital. The idea of a UC takeover died it its cradle for reasons yet undisclosed. The UC might have addressed King-Harbor’s appalling quality issues, but it would likely have amplified the fiscal crisis.

And so, almost two years on, an empty hulk that used to be a government-run hospital decays in America’s most populous county – a testament to the consequences of politically driven health care. Now this hulk is slated to reopen. Let’s hope this is not an example of “change we can believe in,” as we see all levels of government take over more of our health care choices and government-run health services become even less accountable to their communities than they are today.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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