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How a water scientist hopes to save California habitats that could be pumped dry

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How a water scientist hopes to save California habitats that could be pumped dry

California is recognized as one of the world’s hotspots of biodiversity, with more species of plants and animals than any other state. And a significant number of the state’s species, from frogs to birds, live in habitats that depend on groundwater.

These rich ecosystems — including spring-fed streams, wetlands, riparian forests and oak woodlands — are vulnerable to declines in groundwater levels. In areas where unchecked pumping from wells severely depletes aquifers, once-thriving wetlands and forests can dry up and die.

Spotting threats to vulnerable natural areas has become a mission for Melissa Rohde, a hydrologist who has spent years analyzing satellite data and water levels in wells to come up with strategies for preventing ecosystems from being left high and dry.

“Nature has been getting the short end of the stick. It basically gets whatever is left behind, which oftentimes is not enough,” Rohde said. “How do we ensure that these ecosystems are protected?”

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More than 300 species of birds have been seen at Kern River Preserve.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

California is the only state with a groundwater law that includes provisions intended to protect groundwater-dependent ecosystems. But the law, adopted in 2014, gives considerable leeway to local agencies in developing water management plans that prevent “significant and unreasonable adverse impacts.”

When Rohde and other scientists examined the local plans for parts of the state that fall under regulation, they found only about 9% of groundwater-dependent ecosystems are adequately protected, while the remaining 91% are vulnerable.

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When they looked at the entire state, they determined only 1% of the ecosystems are sufficiently protected under measures adopted to date.

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Rohde has been focusing on finding ways to change that, in California and around the world.

Often working at home, she has pored over satellite data to spot decreases in vegetation greenness during drought, a telltale sign of die-off caused by declining aquifer levels. And she has analyzed how different types of trees, including willows, cottonwoods and oaks, fare when water levels fall depending on the depth of their roots.

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Rohde and other researchers recently published a study outlining how California can set targets for maintaining groundwater levels — based on a formula including the type of vegetation, local water data and satellite imagery — to ensure the plants that anchor each ecosystem will be able to reach water and survive during dry times.

Cattle graze at the Kern River Preserve.

Cattle graze at the Kern River Preserve.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“If we don’t have groundwater levels that are able to support these diverse native vegetation ecosystems, then basically we run the risk of losing that important habitat for a lot of our threatened and endangered species,” Rohde said. “When you play around with keeping groundwater levels too deep to support the habitat, then you could lose species, and then that’s irreversible. The consequences can be severe.”

In California’s Mediterranean climate, trees, shrubs and the species they support are naturally adapted to drought. But excessive pumping from wells can push habitats beyond ecological limits by depleting the sources that sustain them.

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With humanity’s heating of the planet intensifying droughts, the strains affecting these ecosystems continue to grow.

Already, California has lost the vast majority of its original wetlands to development, water diversions and agriculture. To avoid losing what remains, Rohde said, the state needs “a precautionary and preventative approach that can ensure that these ecosystems can withstand the intensification of droughts in climate change.”

During a recent visit to Kern County, Rohde and several conservation specialists walked in the shade through a lush forest of cottonwood trees near the south fork of the Kern River, visiting a nature preserve she had previously seen only in satellite images.

Scientist Melissa Rohde stands in a riparian forest.

Scientist Melissa Rohde visits a riparian forest at the Kern River Preserve.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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At the edge of a clearing, she came upon the bare, sunbleached skeletons of dead trees.

She said satellite data had revealed that parts of the forest died along this part of the Kern River during the drought between 2012 and 2016.

“That’s because the groundwater levels rapidly declined,” Rohde said.

After that die-off, she said, groundwater levels rebounded in the area, and the native vegetation has been growing back.

A sign reads "Kern River Preserve" on a gate, with trees in the background.

The Kern River Preserve protects the riparian ecosystem along the south fork of the Kern River.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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It helps that this forest is protected as part of the Kern River Preserve, which is managed by the National Audubon Society, and that some nearby farmlands have been retired and converted to conservation lands over the years.

The preserve’s managers, working with the organization Ducks Unlimited, have also restored an expanded wetland by diverting water from the river and flooding a section of pastureland where cattle used to graze.

The wetland attracts birds, such as coots and tricolored blackbirds, and also recharges the aquifer that the roots of cottonwoods and willows tap into.

Scientists and conservation specialists stand on a rock formation overlooking a wetland.

Scientist Melissa Rohde, left, and conservation specialists from Ducks Unlimited and the Audubon Society, including Reed Tollefson, right, stand on rocks overlooking a wetland at the Kern River Preserve.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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The 3,300-acre preserve has expanded as adjacent alfalfa fields have been purchased and agricultural wells have been shut down, said Reed Tollefson, the preserve’s manager. These efforts have helped protect a refuge for birds including willow flycatchers and yellow-billed cuckoos.

As he pointed to several dead trees poking from the living cottonwoods, he said protecting the forest from groundwater pumping and climate change will require additional effort.

“I think it’s tenuous,” he said. “We’ve got more work to do to try and really sustain this.”

The dead trees that have appeared here and elsewhere in California over the past decade represent the sort of die-off that water managers need to focus on preventing, Rohde said.

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“It has to be an intentional practice of setting thresholds, monitoring, using satellite data or other scalable means to measure the impacts, in order to make sure that we are not allowing this to happen on a wider scale,” she said. “From a biodiversity perspective, it’s absolutely critical.”

Rohde said she felt hopeful seeing the forest rebounding and much greener than it was several years ago, with many young trees coming up.

Some other parts of California haven’t fared nearly as well.

One rainy day last month, Rohde visited an area along the Santa Clara River in Ventura County where several hundred acres of willows and cottonwoods dried up and died during the drought in the mid-2010s.

When groundwater pumping by farms and communities caused aquifer levels to fall, many trees died along the river near the city of Fillmore.

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“We saw this catastrophic drop in groundwater at this site,” Rohde said.

She visited the area with a research colleague and two managers from The Nature Conservancy. They stood on a gravel road next to a lemon grove, checking on what remained of the forest.

Scientist Melissa Rohde stands beside tall reeds.

Scientist Melissa Rohde stands in a thicket of arundo, an invasive reed that has proliferated along parts of the Santa Clara River in Ventura County. There are ongoing efforts to remove the nonnative reeds in the area.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Where native trees died, an explosion of invasive reeds has taken over. The nonnative reeds, called arundo, have grown into thickets more than 20 feet tall. And unlike willows, Rohde said, arundo offers little value as habitat for birds.

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“When we had that massive die-off, and the groundwater levels remained deep, there was no way for the native vegetation to regenerate,” she said. “But arundo is extremely efficient at extracting soil moisture. And so it was able to outcompete the native vegetation.”

She said efforts to prevent this sort of habitat degradation should be prioritized.

When managers of local agencies set goals for maintaining groundwater levels, she said, they can tailor targets to the type of vegetation — whether there are cottonwood trees, with roots averaging about 9 feet long, or oaks, with roots that average nearly 30 feet but can grow much deeper.

Her colleague Michael Bliss Singer said when native trees are ravaged by multiple years of low water levels, they will start losing leaves and then dropping branches.

In one study, Singer and others documented a “brown wave” of trees drying along the Santa Clara River between 2012 and 2016 — a loss they saw in satellite images.

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A man looks out on a muddy river.

Scientist Michael Bliss Singer looks out over the Santa Clara River in Ventura County.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s completely transformed the ecosystem here,” said Singer, a professor at Cardiff University in Wales who is also a researcher at UC Santa Barbara.

When plants die off like this and don’t recover, it’s a symptom of an ecosystem in decline. To prevent more of these losses in an era when climate change is driving more severe droughts, Singer said, it’s crucial to “come up with creative solutions for the worst-case scenario.”

Rohde has found in her research, however, that most local groundwater plans in California haven’t adequately accounted for climate projections.

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Previously, Rohde did other types of climate research, including a stint in Antarctica in 2010, where she was part of a drilling team collecting ice cores. From that experience, Rohde said she realized that “I didn’t want to spend my career convincing people that climate change was an issue; I wanted to do something about it.”

She wore a faded cap with an Antarctica map, a memento of that trip. Rohde said her recent work is motivated by concerns about the climate crisis and biodiversity, as well as a conviction that proactive steps to protect ecosystems can make a difference.

“I have two young kids. I really want to make sure that I’m doing the best thing that I can to ensure a sustainable future for them, where they can access nature,” Rohde said.

A man holds binoculars as he observes a wetland.

E.J. Remson, a senior project director for The Nature Conservancy, surveys a wetland along the Santa Clara River in Ventura County.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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“Often groundwater is out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “We don’t measure it, we don’t understand it and we misuse it. And we need to make sure that we are managing groundwater so that it is supporting us, and making sure that we have a sustainable future.”

Rohde now works as an independent scientist. Previously, as a researcher for The Nature Conservancy, she helped write an atlas of threatened and endangered species that rely on groundwater.

California’s groundwater-dependent ecosystems lie not only along streams, but also in habitats such as mountain meadows, coastal redwood forests and mesquite bushes among desert sand dunes. The species they support range from tiger salamanders to desert pupfish, and from songbirds to mammals such as ground squirrels and bighorn sheep.

“The risks are high when species are on the verge of extinction,” Rohde said.

Rohde and other scientists have found that ecosystems sustained by groundwater are under threat worldwide. Some of the few regions that have measures intended to protect them, she said, include Australia, the European Union and California.

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Still, even with California’s groundwater regulations and endangered species laws, Rohde said, “we continue to miss the mark in actually protecting them.”

Rohde said state officials should give local water agencies clear direction to ensure they’re using science-based methods to safeguard ecosystems in their state-mandated plans. She said agencies can now use the approaches scientists have outlined to map strongholds of biodiversity and set targets for maintaining aquifer levels.

“It’s very attainable,” she said. “Now, it’s just basically up to political will, or enforcement by the Department of Water Resources, to ensure that that happens.”

Walking in the rain at the Santa Clara River Preserve, Rohde followed her former Nature Conservancy colleagues Peter Dixon and E.J. Remson on a trail through a stand of healthy trees.

A man in a hooded rain jacket hikes along a soaked trail.

Peter Dixon, a project manager with The Nature Conservancy, walks on a trail through the riparian forest at the Santa Clara River Preserve.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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They stood on the banks of the fast-flowing river, watching the muddy water churn past.

In the summer and fall, this part of the river usually dwindles to a trickle.

And during the next drought, when the river dries up, the forest will depend on the same groundwater that nearby communities and farms also use.

If the water needs of this and other ecosystems aren’t prioritized, Rohde said, vital habitats will suffer.

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“We need to be deliberate about the planning, and ensuring that they get their fair share,” she said. “Their existence is potentially imperiled if we don’t act.”

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You can help name L.A.’s newest dinosaur fossil. Just don't call it Dino McDinoface

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You can help name L.A.’s newest dinosaur fossil. Just don't call it Dino McDinoface

Sage? Esme? Gnatalie?

The Los Angeles County Natural History Museum is seeking the public’s help in naming a 70-foot-long sauropod skeleton unearthed by the museum’s paleontologists.

The dinosaur will be the focal point of the NHM Commons, a $75-million welcome center currently under construction on the southwest end of the museum in Exposition Park.

Slated to open this fall, the Commons will offer gardens, an outdoor plaza, a 400-seat theater and a glass-walled welcome center that can be toured without a ticket.

Its centerpiece is the sauropod, whose late Jurassic remains were found in southeast Utah and collected by museum paleontologists between 2007 and 2019. The long-necked, long-tailed dinosaur appears to be part of a new species, similar to the Diplodocus, which will be scientifically named in the future.

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Currently under construction at the museum, the skeleton is made up of about 350 fossils from six animals whose bones washed into a river after death some 150 million years ago and commingled.

How to vote

Online poll is open to name Natural History Museum dinosaur fossil

The voting is open until Thursday, June 20. You can choose from five names.

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Thanks to celadonite minerals that replaced organic matter during the fossilization process, the fossils are a striking emerald green, unique to this specimen.

Museum staff have long referred to the dinosaur internally as “Gnatalie,” a reference to the relentless gnats that plagued the dig site during the excavation. As its debut approaches, it’s time to turn the dinosaur over to the public.

“We want the people of Los Angeles to feel that this completely unique green giant is theirs, because it is,” said Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County. “It’s not every day you build a more than 75-foot-long green dinosaur skeleton.”

In an online poll that runs through June 20, voters can choose from one of five names selected by museum staff:

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  • Gnatalie: A nod to the original quarry, and the scientists, students and community members who participated in the excavation (and endured the bugs).
  • Sage: An iconic green L.A. native plant that is also grown in NHM’s Nature Gardens.
  • Verdi: A derivative of the Latin word for green whose variations appear in multiple languages.
  • Esme: Short for “Esmeralda,” the Spanish word for “emerald.”
  • Olive: Olive trees are green, like the dinosaur, and a symbol of peace in many cultures.

The NHM Commons, depicted in a rendering, is set to open this fall in Exposition Park.

(Frederick Fisher and Partners, Studio-MLA, Studio Joseph / NHMLAC)

By limiting voting to a few pre-approved choices, the museum seeks to avoid the pitfalls of previous naming campaigns that have allowed more latitude for the public’s creativity. Few have forgotten a U.K. government agency’s 2016 online poll to name a $287-million polar research vessel, which yielded a landslide vote for the name “Boaty McBoatFace.”

Despite voters’ overwhelming preference for Boaty over dignified, pre-approved suggestions like “Shackleton” and “Endeavour,” the U.K.’s Natural Environment Research Council ultimately overrode the will of the people and christened its ship the R.R.S. Sir David Attenborough, after the beloved British television host and natural historian. (In a concession to the popular vote, the NERC agreed to grant the McBoatFace moniker to one of the ship’s three autonomous submarines.)

The winning name will be announced on June 25.

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Antibiotics wreak havoc on the gut. Can we kill the bad bugs and spare the good ones?

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Antibiotics wreak havoc on the gut. Can we kill the bad bugs and spare the good ones?

Inside every human is a thriving zoo of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microscopic organisms collectively known as the microbiome. Trillions of microbes live in the digestive tract alone, a menagerie estimated to contain more than 1,000 species.

This ecosystem of tiny stuff affects our health in ways science is only beginning to understand, facilitating digestion, metabolism, the immune response and more. But when serious infection sets in, the most powerful antibiotics take a merciless approach, wiping out colonies of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract and often prompting secondary health problems.

“Increasingly, researchers are recognizing the benefits of protecting the human gut microbiome, particularly because its integrity and diversity is linked to metabolic influences on mental health and physical health conditions,” said Dr. Oladele A. Ogunseitan, a professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine.

Drug-resistant bugs are evolving faster than new medicines are being developed, rendering the current arsenal of medicines increasingly ineffective. But the more we understand about the microbiome, the clearer it is that we need antibiotics that are discerning in their targets.

With that goal in mind, a chemistry team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is experimenting with a compound that attempts to address both problems. The antibiotic, lolamicin, both successfully vanquished several drug-resistant pathogens in mice while sparing the animals’ microbiome. The results were published in the journal Nature.

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“Only recently has it been recognized that killing these [beneficial] bacteria is having many deleterious effects on patients,” said Paul J. Hergenrother, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who co-led the study. “We have been interested for some time in finding antibiotics that would be effective without killing the good bacteria.”

The team set out to create an antibiotic that would both preserve the gut microbiome while targeting gram-negative bacteria, a particularly hardy category of superbugs. Encased in both an inner and outer membrane that antibiotics struggle to cross, gram-negative bacteria are resistant to most currently available therapies. They are responsible for the majority of the estimated 35,000 deaths in the U.S. each year from drug-resistant infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Worldwide, antimicrobial resistance kills an estimated 1.27 million people directly every year and contributes to the deaths of millions more.

Not all gram-negative bugs make us sick. Bacteria populations in the average human gut are roughly split between gram-negative and gram-positive types, said Kristen Munoz, a former doctoral student at the University of Illinois who co-led the study.

Broad spectrum antibiotics can’t tell which bugs to spare, she said. As a result, anything strong enough to treat a bad infection “is going to wipe out a good amount of your gut microbiome,” she said, even though they “aren’t doing anything wrong.”

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The team focused its search for a new drug on compounds that suppress the Lol system, which shuttles lipoproteins between the inner and outer membranes in gram-negative bacteria.

The Lol system’s genetic code looks different in harmful bacteria than it does in beneficial ones, which suggested to researchers that medicines that targeted the Lol system would be able to distinguish good bugs from bad ones.

The team designed multiple versions of these Lol-inhibiting compounds. When tested against 130 drug-resistant strains of Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Enterobacter cloacae, one in particular proved especially potent.

They tested this antibiotic, which they named lolamicin, on mice that had been infected with drug-resistant strains of septicemia or pneumonia. All of the mice with septicemia survived after receiving lolamicin, as did 70% of the mice with pneumonia.

To measure the effect on gut bacteria, the researchers gave healthy mice either lolamicin, a placebo or one of two common antibiotics, amoxicillin and clindamycin. After collecting baseline stool samples, they sampled the animals’ poop seven, 10 and 31 days after treatment.

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Mice treated with amoxicillin or clindamycin had lower beneficial bacteria counts and less diversity of gut bacteria. In contrast, the guts of lolamicin-treated mice appeared largely the same.

“It was exciting to see that lolamicin did not really cause any changes in the microbiome, whereas the other clinically used antibiotics did,” Munoz said.

A disrupted microbiome can have immediate consequences for people battling infection. When beneficial microbes are decimated, dangerous bugs have fewer competitors and secondary infections can take hold.

Clostridium difficile is a notorious opportunistic pathogen, so the researchers did an experiment where they exposed mice treated with lolamicin, amoxicillin or clindamycin to C. difficile. The mice who took standard antibiotics were soon crawling with C. difficile. The lolamicin mice showed little to no infection.

The lab hopes to one day take lolamicin or a version of it to clinical trials, Hergenrother said. (Munoz received her doctorate last year and now works as a scientific analyst in Los Angeles.) Yet these are still early days for the drug. While the concept of a discerning antibiotic is a welcome development, it must clear significant barriers before it could make a difference for patients.

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“Distinguishing a quote-unquote ‘bad bug’ from a quote-unquote ‘good bug’ is not always as straightforward as it may seem,” said Dr. Sean Spencer, a Stanford University gastroenterologist and physician scientist who was not involved with the research.

Some beneficial bugs in the gut bear a striking genetic resemblance to harmful pathogens, he said. Others are benign in some contexts and dangerous in others: “In a critically ill individual, a good bug can do bad things.”

Years can pass between a new antibiotic’s proof of concept and its entry to the market, and the vast majority never make it to the end of that pipeline. It’s also not clear how easily or how quickly bacteria will develop resistance, which is perhaps the most formidable obstacle that lolamicin or any new antibiotic faces.

“One of the biggest problems is that bacteria are so smart. You can tackle one particular protein system or protein target in bacteria, but they will quickly find a resistance mechanism,” Munoz said. “They just have so many inherent mechanisms to overcome antibiotics.”

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Doctors and dentists at L.A. County-run hospitals will get bonuses under tentative deal

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Doctors and dentists at L.A. County-run hospitals will get bonuses under tentative deal

Unionized doctors and dentists who work at hospitals and other health facilities run by Los Angeles County will get cost-of-living increases and bonuses under new agreements with the county, reached after more than two years of bargaining and threats of a strike.

The tentative agreements with a pair of bargaining units represented by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists are expected to be voted on this month by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Members of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists had geared up to go on strike in December, complaining that inadequate benefits had hampered recruitment and retention and driven up vacancy rates for crucial positions in county facilities, including for psychiatrists in its jails.

Much of the dispute centered on the “Megaflex” benefits package that L.A. County provides to more than 14,000 employees including managerial and administrative staff, most of whom are not unionized. That package gives workers an additional 14.5% to 19% over their base pay to buy benefits and allows them to keep any unspent portion as income, according to county officials.

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UAPD pushed for its members to get those benefits. The Department of Health Services countered that they already had an “extensive benefits package” — the same one in place for more than 35,000 other county workers — and that giving all of them a more costly package would prevent the county from concentrating its incentives on the hardest-to-recruit workers.

The two sides also sparred over the costs of expanding Megaflex: At one point, UAPD officials estimated the added costs at roughly $20 million a year based on current wages, but county officials had pegged the expected expense at more than $86 million a year, with costs rising with any salary increase.

The planned strike in December was put on hold after the county and the union agreed to seek opinions from outside experts about the implications of expanding Megaflex.

In late April, the UAPD announced that its negotiating teams had reached tentative agreements with the county, which were ratified by union members by the end of May.

Under the deal, the workers would get cost-of-living increases that match those received by other county employees, with additional hikes for some positions ranging from 2.75% to 19.25%, according to the county chief executive office. Starting wages were also increased for some medical specialties such as neurology.

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In addition, the county agreed to bolster benefits “no later than January 1, 2026,” according to the chief executive office. The added benefits include a 401(k) plan, as well as short-term disability benefits for physicians, who had complained that doctors were not getting enough paid time off to recover from childbirth.

The existing set of benefits put female physicians planning to become pregnant “at a disadvantage compared to private hospitals in the area,” said Dr. Michelle Armacost, a physician specializing in neurology at one of the county facilities, in a statement released by the union. “We demanded equitable benefits, and we were willing to strike for them. The county heard us, and we prevailed.”

Beyond those increases, county workers who are not covered by Megaflex will get an annual bonus of $14,000 on top of their base salary, according to the chief executive office. Union officials also said the deal features a “physician loyalty bonus for residents who choose to remain with the county after residency.”

“These new agreements set competitive wages and attractive benefits that we hope will allow us to fill critical vacancies at our county-run hospitals and other facilities and retain the talented healthcare workers already providing essential services to our county residents,” the chief executive office said in a statement.

County officials did not immediately provide an estimate of the costs of the new contract with the unionized doctors.

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Benefits have long been a bone of contention for county physicians. Doctors employed by L.A. County were cut off from Megaflex benefits more than two decades ago, a few years after they had voted to unionize.

At the time, county officials said such benefits were available only to nonunionized employees. “The doctors, they knew full well what they were getting into,” then-Supervisor Don Knabe said in 2001.

Labor officials decried it as a move to break the fledgling union, calculating the value of the benefits package at $19,000 or more to some senior doctors at the time. State lawmakers then banned the county from removing workers from a benefits plan because they unionized, making the law retroactive to before the L.A. County move. The UAPD also sued the county, eventually securing over $10 million in settlement.

The union later negotiated a new agreement with the county that grandfathered in existing workers on Megaflex, but put new hires on a different plan, the county chief executive office said. As of December, only a small number of UAPD members — fewer than 200 — had Megaflex benefits, according to the county.

In a report last year to county supervisors, Dr. Christina R. Ghaly, director of the Department of Health Services, said that over the years, “steady increases in salary were negotiated while factoring in that this group does not receive Megaflex benefits.”

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UAPD President Dr. Stuart Bussey rejected the idea that they had “bargained Megaflex away” at a public rally last year. In the past, “recruitment wasn’t as bad as it is now,” and a state law limiting pension benefits for government employees wasn’t in effect, Bussey told the crowd. “Times have changed.”

In a recent statement to union members, Bussey said that UAPD members had “refused to settle until we secured a collective bargaining agreement that prioritizes patient care with competitive pay and benefits.”

“Your determination and patience paid off, and we look forward to collaborating with the county to fill vacant positions.”

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