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Cook County to slash health services

Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

Longer lines, fewer services and shuttered clinics are coming to the area’s primary public health system, county leaders said Tuesday.

With Cook County Board President Todd Stroger sitting beside him in silent endorsement, interim county health bureau chief Robert Simon said he will close more than half of the county’s 26 standalone and school health clinics, lay off doctors and cut “nonessential” services at the county’s three hospitals.

It’s the start of a restructuring process that will take more than a year, said Simon, who has run Stroger Hospital’s emergency room for almost two decades.

“No one, including the president, wants to have a 17 percent reduction in this rapid of a time,” Simon said. “We have to preserve essential services to the poor as much as possible within the budget that is allotted.”

Minutes later, 10 or 17 commissioners on the county board gathered to voice their support for Stroger’s plan to cut 17 percent across the board in the 2007 budget, including the health bureau. They all said they were willing to force spending cuts on offices that don’t do it themselves.

“It’s a cut that’s long overdue,” said finance committee chairman Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago). “There’s no doubt people will lose their jobs, there’s no doubt that clinics will have to close.”

Stroger said he hadn’t yet signed off an a specific plan to cut the health bureau but said clinic closings will be included.

“It’s going to be very painful. How can you cut into any health care system and not feel some pain?” Stroger said. “You can’t figure out anything until you start doing something. We can’t sit on the sidelines.”

Simon said Stroger told him he had a free hand to ignore political considerations and cut whatever was needed to protect essential services while cutting spending by $140 million.

“The reality of the clinics is that 85 to 90 percent of all the patients in the community clinics are seen in 10 to 12 sites,” Simon said. “We have developed a plan where probably about 10 clinics that are high volume ... are going to be open.”

The county will try to transfer some of the doctors to the busier clinics and expand those clinics’ hours if possible, Simon said.

None of the county’s three hospitals will close, though some departments will be eliminated. Simon said he would be able to name which clinics and departments next week after further study.

“There’s going to be longer lines until we restructure,” Simon said. “We’re going to make mistakes. There may be some people that we let go, some areas that we close that we have to then figure out how to reopen.”

Employees will start getting pink slips by the end of this month, Simon said, because they must be laid off before the 2007 budget is approved, no later than Feb. 28.

Stroger has asked all county departments to cut expenditures 17 percent for 2007 so that the county can close a $502 million budget gap without raising taxes.

Privately, top county officials have said some county offices likely will get away with less, especially if they’ve cut in previous years or are under court scrutiny, such as the county jail and juvenile detention center.

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