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Dr. Simon says ... Send home illegal immigrants
Cook County health services chief disputes announcement that long-term residents should be evicted from Oak Forest Hospital

Sunday, March 25, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Gregg Sherrard Blesch Staff writer

Dr. Robert Simon, chief of Cook County health services, said the county should fly illegal immigrants living at Oak Forest Hospital back to the countries they came from.
"We're giving luxury service in a setting like a park," Simon said in an interview Friday, referring to the acres of grass and trees on the sprawling campus. "We've got undocumented aliens that are living there like that."

Simon was disputing that the county plans to evict about 220 patients by Sept. 1 -- as the patients were told Friday -- but defending his opinion that most of them should be living somewhere else, and not at the county's expense.
The hospital is home to 20 to 30 illegal immigrants who are profoundly disabled, estimated Horacio Esparza of the Progress Center for Independent Living.
Esparza, director of the group's south satellite office, has been working with Oak Forest patients whose immigration status could make it extremely difficult for them to find care if they have to leave.
"I think that was just an answer that came through his mouth without analyzing how that was going to happen," Esparza said when asked about Simon's offer to repatriate them.
"This isn't just transportation," Esparza said. "There's services. There's medical issues. They are from rural areas in their countries. There's no accessibility, no medical treatments.
"That's totally not acceptable."
The hospital's long-term residents have feared for two months now that they might be asked to leave as a consequence of the county's $500 million deficit.
Sylvia Edwards, the hospital's chief operating officer, sought to end the rumors and speculation in a meeting with the most of the residents Friday afternoon.
"Sept. 1 is really the date that long-term care is slated to end here at Oak Forest Hospital," they were told, according to hospital spokeswoman Annette Carney.
But Simon says that's not true, at least not yet.
It will be true, he said, if the county can't reduce the number of nursing home beds to 70 as he has said since January was his intention.
"The only thing we agreed on is, by Sept. 1, we would reduce the size to 70," Simon said. "There is a possibility that the federal government will not allow us to transfer the patients out unless the patients agree."
And getting them to agree might be a stretch, he said.
With "barbers and beauticians" and other amenities, Simon said, the care at Oak Forest costs about five times what it would in a private nursing home.
"There are people that have been there for 10, 20 years," Simon said. "You as a citizen are paying for that at $800 a day."
Simon said the few beds retained in the county health system should be used for Stroger and Provident hospital patients who aren't ready to go home but don't need to be taking up a hospital bed, at a significantly higher cost.
"All those undocumented aliens, the taxpayers are paying the entire bill," Simon said.
The county does not receive any state or federal reimbursement for patients who are not citizens or legal residents.
"What I'm saying is, our primary concern has to be to the taxpayers and the citizens," he said.
Simon said moving the immigrants to their home countries should be done "in a humane way," identifying and communicating with family members who will receive them.
"We should pay the transport and the airfare to get them there," Simon said. "They're citizens of another country."
If sufficiently reducing the number of beds proves too complicated, he said, he would recommend eliminating the category of service and then hiring a contractor to run a less expensive skilled nursing unit at Oak Forest.
Dr. Srinivas Jolepalem, an attending physician at Oak Forest, says all of the people who live at Oak Forest now have severe and complicated medical needs, demanding more than the typical nursing home has to offer.
"It's a very sad day for all the patients and also for the employees," Jolepalem said. "That was the pride of our hospital, long-term care."
The residents were told Friday the county already notified the Illinois Department of Public Health that long-term care would be discontinued.
When asked about Simon's contradictory version, spokeswoman Carney said a letter of intent has been drafted but not sent.
The meeting was intended to "let them know this is what's pending in all probability, to let them know they will receive maximum assistance wherever their next step is for them, whatever their (immigration) status," Carney said.
The Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board would have to approve the change, and the residents must be given 30 days notice, spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.
Artemio Garcia, 40, a quadriplegic who has lived at Oak Forest hospital for 15 years, took issue with Simon's comments.
"Everybody pays taxes, illegal immigrants, everybody pays taxes. That's supposed to be for public health, right?" Garcia said.
"The politicians, the rich people, they have everything. They don't need anything. They don't think about poor people and the handicapped. We just take the consequences."
Garcia declined to discuss his immigration status.
Stroger appointed Simon in December as interim chief of the health bureau, and he has been a lightning rod for advocates of the poor and union members attacking the cuts he proposed in health services.
Apparently sensitive to his reputation in some quarters, Simon asked that his remarks about immigrants not be twisted to make him look uncaring.
That's what happened with comments he made to a Chicago Reader reporter in 1995 when he was chairman of the emergency department at Cook County Hospital, he said.
"Most of the homeless really don't care about themselves or are psychiatrically impaired," he was quoted as saying. "You can give them any opportunity in the world, and they would not take advantage of it. They could do things for themselves, but they won't. So who the hell cares about them?"



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