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County panel backs restoring clinic-referral program

Thursday, May 24, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

A Cook County committee Wednesday advanced a measure directing health officials to restore a program that lets community clinics refer patients to the county for specialty care such as diabetic exams and cardiology screenings.

The referral system was suspended last month as part of the cash-strapped county's massive financial restructuring. The move is expected to save $15 million to $20 million a year.
But representatives of some clinics that were sending their patients to the special unit at Stroger Hospital said suspension would end up costing the county more money because their patients will eventually land in county emergency rooms where care is more expensive.

"This decision will not be a cost saver. This decision will cost more," said Babs Waldman, medical director of CommunityHealth, a Chicago-based free clinic. "So if we're in the business of trying to save money, this is not the decision to make."

Randall Mark, director of policy analysis for the county's Bureau of Health Services, said county officials have been talking to private hospitals about taking some of the patients referred by the clinics."Indigent and poor patients and medically underserved populations need to continue to receive care, and we call on our partners to work with us to share resources and responsibilities to make this possible," Mark said.

The county is also encouraging the community clinics to direct their patients to the county's ambulatory screening clinic, which has doubled the number of its exam rooms.

Dwayne Mitchell, chief operating officer of Chicago Family Health Center, which referred nearly 2,000 patients to the county last year, said the efficient Internet-based system reduced the number of unnecessary referrals. He called its suspension "a tremendous disservice."

Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood) said the county needs to restart the system. "Something has to be done," Murphy said.

Commissioner Jerry Butler (D-Chicago), who voted against the resolution, said it was unfortunate county officials stopped the referral system on short notice but they had little choice.

"I just can't tell somebody to put the ... system back when there's no money to keep it going," Butler said.

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