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'What's going to happen to these patients?'

Sunday, January 21, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Gregg Sherrard Blesch Staff writer

Eugene Hibler had full health benefits during a 38-year career with LTV Steel.

That coverage dried up in 2002, a year after the mill closed, and the Calumet Park resident suddenly found himself among the Southland's growing ranks of uninsured and under insured.

With Cook County poised to close clinics in Phoenix and Ford Heights, a handful of organizations will attempt to absorb those patients and provide them with services such as primary care and obstetrics before they resort to hospital emergency rooms.

"I think it's a bad idea to deprive people who need health care," said Hibler, 65, who was among a dozen or so patients waiting Friday to see a doctor at Access Community Health Care in Blue Island. Before he grew old enough to qualify for Medicare, he twice turned to Cook County's Oak Forest Hospital, which likewise is facing cuts.

Access operates another center and a dental clinic in Chicago Heights, as well as 44 sites beyond the Southland.

Aunt Martha's Healthcare Network has similar centers in Harvey and Chicago Heights and in March will open another on the campus of South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest.

"We heard the news, and we thought probably what a lot of people thought," Aunt Martha's chief operating officer Raul Garza said. "What's going to happen to these patients?"

Garza said he would set up a meeting with Cook County officials to transfer as many of them into his system as possible.

"That's our mission," Garza said.

Cook County's Woody Winston Health Center in Phoenix and Cottage Grove Health Center in Ford Heights together handled more than 17,000 patient visits in 2006.

President Todd Stroger's proposed budget includes no funding for those sites, leaving the Robbins Health Center as the only county clinic in the south suburbs.

It's unlikely the Robbins clinic could absorb many of the patients, said Dr. Simon Piller, an internist and pediatrician at the Robbins site. Closing the other two, he said, would be "an absurdity."

"How many people can you pack into a telephone booth and still make a phone call?" Piller said.

The county's network of 26 clinics was created to serve as a safety net, but private organizations have proliferated and expanded to meet a need growing far beyond the county's capacity, long before Stroger put the clinics on the chopping block.

These federally qualified health centers receive grants and enhanced Medicaid reimbursement in exchange for caring for underserved communities.

They bill private and public insurance, but they take all comers, charging for care on a sliding scale according to ability to pay.

Patients covered by one of the state's Medicaid programs have trouble finding primary care doctors who will see them.

"I was looking for the closest physician in my area that actually accepts Medicaid," said Blue Island resident April Housman, 33, a new patient at Access Community Health. "Very, very difficult."

In late 2005, Family Christian Center moved into a new building on the campus of Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey. In its first year it had 42,000 visits.

"The demand just exceeded anyone's expectation," Family Christian Center development director Heather Sciford said.

A grant from the Illinois Department of Public Health has allowed an expansion that will provide walk-in and same-day appointments for primary care with evening and Saturday hours.

"We're anticipating an additional 8,000 to 9,000 (visits) in the Today Care setting," Sciford said.

The Access center in Chicago Heights has expanded twice and added extended hours, CEO Donna Thompson said.

"An interesting piece going on in the Southland is the dramatic increase in the working poor," Thompson said. "People are working, and they don't have health insurance."

She worries her south suburban sites won't have enough capacity to absorb many patients from shuttered county clinics.

"The cup runneth over, so to speak," Thompson said.

Hospital emergency rooms ultimately will provide last-ditch care for patients who can't or don't find their way into a primary care setting.

"There's this snowballing effect," said Kevin Scanlan, president of the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council, which represents about 140 hospitals and organizations in the region, including the county hospitals.

Scanlan also is a member of Stroger's transition team.

"We continue to make sure that all parties involved understand again what the overall consequences of these cuts might be."


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