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County can't put residents' health at risk

Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Daily Southtown

The issue: The head of the Cook County health bureau says that if more funding isn't provided, the consequences could be life-threatening.

We say: Budget cuts made this year were too severe. The county needs to ensure that it can provide the services that residents need, even if it means fewer political hires within the bureau.

There's a health crisis in Cook County.

The head of the county's public health bureau said so.

Dr. Robert Simon said that unless his bureau gets more money in 2008 -- $119 million, to be exact -- "people will suffer ... people are probably going to die ... for lack of care."

It was both heartening and strange to hear those words come from Dr. Simon's mouth. Heartening because it shows a public official sparing no words in bringing to light a genuine problem. Strange because it is the same Dr. Simon who recently oversaw cuts of $107 million from what had been an $845-million health system.

Simon contends that, amid a major budget crisis countywide, he had no other choice but to make severe cuts this year. Simon said it was essential to take out "all the garbage" within certain areas of bureau.

But the cuts, according to a Daily Southtown analysis, also included 260 doctors and 230 nurses. The budget cuts also included the excellent long-term care unit and skilled nursing unit at Oak Forest Hospital.

In the meantime, some lower-level workers, whose jobs were acquired through political connections, no doubt remained employed through the most recent budget cycle -- though their duties likely were more expendable than nearly 500 doctors and nurses.

It's unfortunate that a critical need of our community -- public health -- has become such a political football within the county's budget process. Yet we believe Simon when he says people could die from lack of care.

County officials must find a way to ensure that existing health services are maintained or improved. Simon told county board members he would like to restore some primary care services that were cut this year and increase the number of hip and joint replacements the county can perform. He said he regrets having to cut in those areas this year but had to deal with the target numbers he was handed.

Simon's new wish list appears to be a valid one. The county cannot do without essential services and adequate personnel.

Thus, officials have their work cut out for them in the upcoming months trying to find the $119 million that's needed. We hope officials take a more honest look at their payroll and the contracts they've approved and ensure that political favoritism is not trumping health care.

The county also must continue to strive to improve its billing system. Simon admitted problems in this area still exist. But with millions of dollars at stake, work toward a solution needs to be expedited.

Simon has a unique way with words, and on occasion that brings heat upon him -- some of it justified. However, he spoke passionately to board members about the need to keep public health care vibrant. He called the Cook County system "the Mayo Clinic of public hospitals."

We agree with him on the county's obligation to provide the finest health services possible. But we still feel politics interferes too often with that goal. With lives at stake, that simply cannot be allowed.

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