On Tuesday, the new Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital officially opened its doors to the public. It is a milestone moment and one that must be celebrated. It comes on the heels of the historic Supreme Court decision that enshrines the Affordable Care Act as the law of the land. In the United States of America, in some of our poorest communities we can now say without hesitation that healthcare is a right not a privilege. Because of these two seminal events, the landscape of South LA is significantly more equal with more healthcare opportunities available to all residents than ever before.
Building a new hospital is not for the faint of heart and, believe me, it has been a long and arduous road that took the help and goodwill of many. At times it felt like we were Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain only to see it fall again. There were many naysayers and doubters. But those of us who were determined to see this come to fruition followed Dr. King’s words: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
What we accomplished is truly unique: a public/private partnership that sought to erase all vestiges of a failed past. Los Angeles County acts as landlord and start up lender: We invested more than $250 million to build the hospital in addition to a $172 million in short term and long term loans and grants to start their operation. The county will pay the hospital about $18 million a year to provide quality health care for people who do not have healthcare benefits. We will also monitor and audit the hospital to be sure it is spending taxpayer dollars responsibly. As part of the lease agreement, the hospital must keep up with licensing and accreditation requirements to provide quality care, keep the hospital clean and well-maintained, as any other first rate health provider should.
But this hospital is privately run with its own governing board and a CEO. More than 13,000 people applied for 900 positions. The doctors that have been hired were trained at some the nation’s top medical schools and could have worked at any private hospital. They chose MLK Community Hospital because they believe in the mission of caring for those most in need. This hospital is starting with a clean slate, a new independent and privately run board, a new chief executive and new doctors. It should not bear the burdens of the past.
Still, in this moment of celebration, there remains the sobering reminder of the work that remains to be done. South Los Angeles has the county’s highest rates of negative health predictors. Too many of the residents in my district suffer from heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and other health challenges. And so now comes the hard part: we must work toward creating a new reality. Ironically, part of that new reality means that fewer people should be using that hospital. Instead, they will rely on the medical village that we have also built over the past six years.
They will go to the brand new Outpatient Center, which opened last year, and see specialists to prevent diseases and health challenges. Instead of using the emergency room for mental health issues, patients can use the Mental Health Urgent Care Clinic, a new model of providing mental health help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If they are homeless, they can recover from a hospital visit at the Recuperative Care Center, where they can be nursed back to health and find housing. Residents can get vaccinated, receive reproductive health information and get tested for infectious diseases at the new Center for Public Health. And more is coming.
For too long, this community has been neglected. We owe them the kind of services and healthcare that the most privileged among us enjoy. It is time to stop stigmatizing this community by looking to the past. Rather, now that the doors of the new MLK Community Hospital are open, the nation can see how a community moves forward by heeding Dr. King’s call for hope over despair.