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Some call for Simon to quit
Cook County's top health official under fire after Southtown publishes comments

Thursday, March 29, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Gregg Sherrard Blesch Staff writer

Immigrant advocates on Wednesday called for Cook County's top health official to quit based on comments published in the Sunday Daily Southtown.
In an interview about Oak Forest Hospital, interim health chief Dr. Robert Simon expressed frustration that illegal immigrants are among patients receiving long-term care, which he said costs taxpayers $800 a day.
The county should make efforts to find their families and provide airfare to their countries of origin, Simon said.
"These anti-immigrant remarks are not reflective of the mission of the bureau of health," said Omar Lopez, representing the March 10 Movement for Immigrant Rights, the coalition that mounted massive downtown rallies last year.
Simon started a presentation to the county board Wednesday with a statement that blamed controversy on the Southtown, saying his words were cherry-picked and sensationalized.
"The statements were offered in the context of what I believed to be a discussion about finding solutions posed by one part of an overwhelming regional health care crisis and were not meant to demean or belittle any human being," Simon said.
His response was printed in its entirety in Wednesday's Southtown.
Minutes earlier, outside the board room, Simon's critics held a news conference calling for President Todd Stroger to demand his resignation.
Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago) joined members of the March 10 Movement and the National Nurses Organizing Committee, which represents county nurses and is engaged in a brass-knuckles battle against layoffs under Simon and Stroger's leadership.
Maldonado, whose district is largely Hispanic, said he called Simon after reading the Southtown story on Sunday and was not satisfied by Simon's official statement issued Monday.
"It was a very uncompassionate retraction," he said. "People can respectfully disagree on issues, yes, that's true. But you're not respecting me when you're making those kinds of comments."
Simon pointed out in his response that it's common for hospitals to make arrangements with families across borders for immigrant patients who need long-term care.
In cases where that's not possible, the county still would be obligated to provide care, either within the county system or somewhere else.
In fact, Oak Forest Hospital employees say such efforts are made when patients are admitted and that the ones who are there have nowhere to go.
Maldonado and the other critics said they sensed an antipathy toward immigrants they fear color Simon's decisions.
"We're giving luxury service in a setting like a park," Simon said in the interview last week, defending his proposal to dramatically reduce long-term care at Oak Forest Hospital.
"We've got undocumented aliens living there like that," Simon continued. "All those undocumented aliens, you as a taxpayer are paying the entire bill."
Stroger spokesman Steve Mayberry said Simon's job is safe.
"While Dr. Simon's comments having to do with immigrants are not reflective of the administration's philosophy, he has in fact been asked to rethink and restructure the way health care is provided in Cook County, and we look forward to him continuing that task," Mayberry said.
Nor was there any apparent support among commissioners for Simon's resignation.
"I think the comments as presented in the press were out of context," Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside) said.
"I don't think we have enough to go on to make an informed decision," Peraica said. "He's been in the position perhaps 60 days."
Peraica did, however, rail against Stroger's administration for failing to produce a document that shows exactly what positions and services have been cut, even though more than 30 days have passed since commissioners approved the budget.
The uncertainty has created terrible morale among employees, Peraica said.
Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood) said she opposes the cuts at Oak Forest Hospital but doesn't think Simon should resign over the flap.
"They are too ill to go back to Mexico, if that's where they're from," Murphy said. "If their families could deal with it, they wouldn't be in Oak Forest in the first place. I've expressed to him (that) nursing homes don't want these patients.
"If they're moved to another location, it's like signing a death warrant for them," Murphy said.
The purpose of Simon's appearance before the board was to report on efforts to overhaul the system, and he emphasized measures to improve a dismal track record of collecting payment from Medicaid, insurance companies or patients with the ability to pay.
Simon said all of the necessary initiatives, including technology, new management hires, staff training and outsourced contracts, would take an infusion of $40 million to $50 million to execute fully.
That cost estimate isn't more precise, Simon said, because he doesn't know what the union agreement will be.
Relations with the nurse's union have been poor and are deteriorating.
The National Nurses Organizing Committee assumed representation of the county's nurses in 2005 with a promise to be more aggressive than its predecessor, the Illinois Nurses Association.
Simon on March 19 said an NNOC representative shoved and struck a Provident Hospital employee who was attempting to boot her from the hospital for circulating petitions among patients.
NNOC spokeswoman Sheilah Garland rushed to a microphone to dispute the account.
Commissioner Bill Beavers (D-Chicago), who was questioning Simon at the time, shouted, "I didn't ask you nothin', sit down."
The Stroger administration later played video of the incident captured by a security camera to reporters. The film appears to show a woman throw an elbow as she walks past an employee identified as nurse manager Wendell Reyes.
No charges have been filed, but Reyes plans to press charges, Mayberry said.
Garland, who left the board room after her microphone was removed, said the altercation Simon described never happened, nor did nurses stage a work slowdown, as Simon also alleged.
"Everything he was saying is a complete and utter lie."


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