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Opinion: Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center must be renamed to reflect hospital’s values

Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center is one of the highest ranked in the country, but its eponym certainly isn’t worthy of that honor. (Justin Jung/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Sophia Kloster

Oct. 10, 2021 9:39 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 12 at 8:41 a.m.

As one of the top-performing hospitals in the country, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center has only grown in importance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But at the moment, it bears the name of someone who recklessly discarded the health of tens of thousands of people during a similarly nightmarish public health crisis – the AIDS epidemic.

AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is a condition caused by HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, and can be transmitted sexually, through blood or from mother to child during pregnancy or breastfeeding. The disease has disproportionately affected gay men – a problem exacerbated by historical negligence.

The first case of AIDS in the United States was reported in 1981, escalating to 270 reported cases by the end of the year. But it took former President Ronald Reagan until the beginning of his second term in 1985 to even mention the disease by name.

At that point, 12,000 Americans had already died and many more had been infected.

The former president was also known to be disturbingly racist, once claiming it was an individual’s right to discriminate against Black people when selling a house. In another instance, he referred to delegates from Tanzania as “monkeys from those African countries.”

In 2000, supporters and friends of Reagan donated $150 million to the UCLA medical center to rebuild its facilities after the Northridge earthquake – and, of course, to secure the former president as the medical center’s namesake.

Now, over two decades later, UCLA’s medical center has served a key role throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also committed itself to advocate against medical bias based on race or sexual orientation.

The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center must be renamed in order to better reflect the health center’s performance as a leading hospital, both in medical care and inclusion.

It is hypocritical for the center to preach equity for people of all sexual orientations, races and ethnicities while simultaneously carrying the name of a president whose actions undermined those values and led to the deaths of thousands.

And though the center’s services matter more than its name, the name “Ronald Reagan” does a disservice to the hundreds of medical professionals who provide quality care to patients day in and day out.

The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center is dedicated to promoting health equity – unlike the person it was named for.

“UCLA Health is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in our workplace and in the patient care we provide,” said Phil Hampton, the director of communications at UCLA Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine, in an emailed statement. “We strive to build healthy communities and enhance access to care.”

UCLA’s medical center does indeed back up these claims of diversity and equity. The center funds an executive position and office devoted to furthering them.

But as long as the hospital is associated with a figurehead whose actions were adversarial to health equity for people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community, these efforts to curb bias in health care ring hollow.

After all, names carry weight, especially one that is known around the nation.

“Let’s put somebody’s name on (the medical center) that tried to pass national health care, … not the name of somebody that stood in the way of the possibility of research into AIDS,” said Mary Corey, a senior continuing lecturer in UCLA’s history department.

This hypocrisy is even further highlighted by the more recent COVID-19 pandemic and how the Trump administration mishandled it.

“It’s like naming the room full of respirators at (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center) the ‘Donald Trump COVID recovery room,’” Corey said. “It’s not just slightly bad, it’s ridiculous.”

This is because UCLA has been a frontrunner in HIV research, as the first research institute to recognize why early AIDS drugs failed and successfully clear HIV from an infected infant. It is misrepresentative to name a branch of an institution so instrumental in AIDS research after a president who ignored its existence for the majority of his presidency and trivialized it for the rest.

Tilly Friedlander, a fourth-year communication student and co-director of public relations for the UCLA Pediatric AIDS Coalition, said activists are still fighting a stigma surrounding AIDS to this day, as the Reagan administration mocked the disease with trivializing terms such as the “gay plague.”

“That just kind of speaks to the way that Reagan did not really care about people that were contracting (HIV and) AIDS and all the people that were dying at the time,” Friedlander said.

To be fair, the donation from the former president’s supporters that tethered the center to his name was important in rebuilding the hospital after damage from the earthquake.

But that donation’s benefits for the public good have already been secured, and it has bought the late president two decades of undeserved glorification.

Further, according to UCLA Policy 112, the university can’t guarantee that a building’s name will last as long as the structure itself. The hospital can be renamed, and UCLA should do everything in its power to make that happen.

The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center has made strides in advancing health equity and saving lives.

It should bear the name of someone who has done the same.

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