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Cook County needs to retain commitment to long-term patients

Sunday, March 25, 2007
Daily Southtown

The issue: Cook County's top health official is considering eliminating most or all of the beds in Oak Forest Hospital's long-term care unit.
We say: Closing -- or even reducing -- this unit would be disastrous for the needy patients who require the complex care the facility provides. The county should look for cuts elsewhere and not put patients' health at risk.
In the heat of the poker game known as the Cook County budget battle, one of the biggest chips was the county's health care services. The Todd Stroger administration claimed there were cuts that could be made without forsaking the care of those for whom the county health system is the only viable option. Stroger proposed cutting several county clinics, saying only a few patients a day used them, and those patients could be treated at the many clinics that would remain open.
That seemed reasonable. But other moves did not seem as rational -- primarily the elimination of hundreds of doctors' and nurses' jobs. In the meantime, far too many county political hacks were allowed to keep their cushy jobs.
Now comes word that the county wants to severely reduce the availability of long-term care at the county-run Oak Forest Hospital. Though the county has yet to produce its final appropriation plans, the county's top health official, Dr. Robert Simon, has proposed reducing the number of long-care beds from 220 to 70. And, according to two doctors who were present at a recent meeting with Simon, he may just eliminate them all.
As it is now, the 220 beds almost always are occupied. And many of them are occupied by patients who have called Oak Forest Hospital their home for 15 years or more. These indigent patients are so severely disabled they require constant medical attentiveness that most certainly could not be provided by family members or at a private nursing home -- even if the financial arrangements could be made to move them into one.
Oak Forest Hospital would continue to provide other services, such as an emergency room and limited surgical care. But that's of little consolation to the long-term patients whose future is loaded with uncertainty due to games politicians play.
A group of patients recently visited with the Daily Southtown editorial board. They spoke glowingly of the care they have received through the years. Louis Smith, who has been a resident since being paralyzed by a gunshot wound 18 years ago, described the long-term unit as "a community, vibrant and lively." He and his fellow patients couldn't understand why the Stroger administration was putting them through this ordeal. Doctors and other caregivers at the hospital, some of whom could be pink-slipped at any time, are advocating strongly for the patients and urging the county to keep the long-term unit in tact.
"I don't sleep well at night," Dr. Jody Ashenhurst said. "Everyone is in turmoil."
Both the patients and caregivers claim Simon refuses to provide timetables or any answers at all. There's no place for such insensitivity. The fact is, these patients have few, if any, options. Sending them away goes against the mission of what county health care is supposed to be. The county simply cannot play games with patients in need of complex health care. Instead of eliminating 220 beds, the county should look down the personnel roster in the Division of County Hacks. If money still needs to be saved, we suggest they start there. What's more, officials should ratchet up attempts to correct the county's chronic failure to collect payment for health care services from individuals who are able to pay.
But for the sake of human decency, leave patients like Louis Smith where they are and where they can receive the best care.

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