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Where's the hospitality?
Private hospitals were counted on to fill the gap left by Tinley Mental Health Center closing. But few are interested

Sunday, April 09, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Gregg Sherrard Blesch

State officials who plan to close the Tinley Park Mental Health Center have said private hospitals can absorb the need after the 213-acre campus becomes townhomes, shops and a park.
A study recently completed for the state by the University of Illinois at Chicago puts numbers to the claim.
But the conclusion requires that hospitals in the region, which stretches into Kankakee and Grundy counties, agree to treat patients now referred to Tinley Park under contracts with the state.
That's far from certain.
Few hospitals have signaled interest.
At least two included in the state's calculation of available beds have ruled it out.
Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee and Jackson Park Hospital on Chicago's South Side are the only ones that have such contracts in place.
In some cases, the state has yet to offer formal proposals, but officials visited executives at each targeted hospital beginning in summer 2004 to pitch the idea.
Representatives from three hospitals attended a November meeting on the matter hosted by the Division of Mental Health.
But leaders at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn have concluded their hospital does not have room to help, though the state's study assumes the Oak Lawn hospital has about 12 empty beds to offer.
"We are not going to be a receiving hospital for the state because we are at capacity," Christ Medical spokesman Mike Maggio said. "Our patient population has grown."
Palos Community Hospital in Palos Heights likewise has decided against signing a contract with the state. The psychiatric ward at Palos, the state's study assumes, has 22 vacant beds to offer on a typical day.
"We are not equipped nor staffed to provide the level of service that has been provided at the Tinley Park facility," spokesman Dan McCarthy said, reading a prepared statement.
Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey has about half as many beds to offer as calculated in the state's figures, chief financial officer Vince Pryor said.
"I think the consistent message we've given the state is that we are willing to be part of the solution," Pryor said. "We by no means want to be the only solution."
Others, including Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park and Provena St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, are on the fence.
Little Company executives declined the first time they were offered a contract nearly two years ago, vice president Dennis Day said. "Until we could review a current proposal, I couldn't say."
The majority of patients referred to state hospitals could be appropriately served in any hospital offering psychiatric services, according to the Mike Pelletier, special assistant to the director of the Division of Mental Health.
But selling the partnership between the state and private hospitals, Pelletier acknowledges, will take work.
"We have to educate them in terms of what's in our state hospitals," he said. "A lot of people think the state hospital is a place people go for six months or two, three years ... and they never come out."
Though critics of the Tinley Park closure see the move as a money maker for the state, mental health officials characterize it as a move toward community treatment.
The state's money, they say, is better spent supporting outpatient support and crisis services in the community that prevent people from needing hospitalization.
When someone does need to go the hospital, the thinking goes, it's better for the hospital to be one near home rather than a regional institution.
Last year, the state promised to keep a safety net of psychiatric beds at the insistence of a task force assembled to study the fallout of a Tinley closure. The panel included representatives of the center's workers, hospitals, community organizations and advocacy groups.
That safety net could be a much smaller state-run center somewhere in the region south of Chicago.
The new location might be further from Chicago, following population surges in Will and Grundy counties, Pelletier said.
But the entire strategy depends upon private hospitals assuming much of the responsibility for hospitalizations.
"We need to go back to the hospitals and say, 'Listen, we think there's an opportunity here,' " Pelletier said. "We think what we're actually doing is closing the loop on the people that fall between the cracks."
But the state's analysis of the region's need completely ignores the very people who fall through the cracks, said Mark Heyrman, chairman of public policy for the Mental Health Association in Illinois.
Heyrman, a University of Chicago law professor, supports the move toward eliminating state mental hospitals, but only if better services are established in their place.
The number of people hospitalized in Tinley Park has declined by nearly two thirds over the past dozen years, but that reflects the state's intentional reductions in supply, Heyrman said.
The result is that far more mentally ill people without insurance end up in jails and prisons, so a true needs assessment would at least attempt to count them, Heyrman said.
"You can't say that the number of people who are ending up in our state hospitals reflects demand," he said. "They have often been at capacity and turned people away."
That, he suggested, is like measuring how much food is consumed in Africa during a drought and then concluding, "Send less food there because the food consumption has gone down."
Gregg Sherrard Blesch may be reached at gblesch@dailysouthtown.com or (708) 633-5962.  


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