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Inflamed rhetoric does little to further health care debate

Sunday, April 01, 2007
Daily Southtown

The issue: Amid discussions of Oak Forest Hospital's future, the head of the county's health services said illegal immigrants living at the hospital should be shipped home.
We say: Such remarks divert attention from other, broader issues that need to be resolved so the county can fulfill its mission regarding health care.

The chief of health services for Cook County has suggested sending the illegal immigrants who receive long-term medical care at Oak Forest Hospital back to their home countries.
"We're giving luxury service in a setting like a park," Dr. Robert Simon said in an interview with Southtown health writer Gregg Sherrard Blesch, referring to the grassy, tree-filled acreage of the campus at 159th Street and Cicero Avenue. "We've got undocumented aliens that are living there like that.
"All those undocumented aliens, the taxpayers are paying the entire bill. ... What I'm saying is, our primary concern has to be to the taxpayers and the citizens."
Simon's comments may seem insensitive to some.
To others, Simon may speak a cold truth.
The Progress Center for Independent Living estimates 20 to 30 disabled illegal immigrants are being cared for in Oak Forest, and Cook County taxpayers pay the bills for these patients. At $800 a day, Simon says, the price tag is five times what a private nursing home would pay.
Mired in a severe budget crisis, the county is looking to make hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts. Oak Forest Hospital's long-term residents fear they may be asked to leave to make up for the county's $500 million deficit, among them are legal residents who can't pay their bills and don't qualify for Medicaid.
Such fears are easy to understand.
Though a budget was approved a month ago, no one from County Board President Todd Stroger on down seems to know all its details. Jobs and programs slated for the ax may indeed survive. Others still may be eliminated. It appears to be a case of passing the budget first and worrying about the details later -- details like making sure politically loyal workers remain gainfully employed.
Amid this financial chaos, there were conflicting stories late last week about the fate of patients at Oak Forest's long-term care unit. At first, patients were led to believe the entire 220-bed unit would be shut down by Sept. 1 and the patients evicted. Simon later said that wasn't the case -- yet. He'd like to get the unit down to 70 beds, but didn't rule out the possibility long-term care could be closed and contracted to a private company.
Are Simon's comments cold-hearted or cold truth?
In our view, Simon's comments are asinine, particularly in light of the growing debacle of Cook County's mismanaged finances. Regardless of your views on illegal immigration, the controversy over Simon's daft notions of deportation diverts attention from other problems that should be addressed.
The county pays for almost $100 million in patient care provided to people who live in the collar counties who get sent to Stroger Hospital because their home communities do not provide charity care. Last week, county officials said they found 77 boxes with more than $200 million worth of patient bills that never were sent. The Southtown reported in November that the county was $68 million behind in collecting patient fees from its three hospitals. Why? Because they didn't know who was supposed to be doing the work. The Chicago Tribune reported in February that the county's health services department doesn't even bother billing patients who actually carry health insurance, which suggests that the county could be missing out on millions and millions of dollars.
Why not start treating those financial ailments before turning attention to a few dozen profoundly disabled people taking up beds at Oak Forest Hospital?
We don't believe the county has done enough to look at other places to cut without putting the health of its patients at risk.
It's amazing that county administrators can't talk as tough about loafing county workers as they can about needy patients who come September better have a forwarding address. Defenseless patients appear to be easy marks when it comes time find a way to cut costs. After all, they don't have political bosses to do their bidding for them.
There is no denying the burden illegal immigration puts on this country. But using the handful of profoundly disabled illegal immigrants at Oak Forest Hospital as a pawn in the broader debate over the availability of health care in Cook County does nothing but harm.
And harm, as Dr. Simon should know, is something no doctor should cause.

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