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U. of C. may send patients to Provident

Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo | Tribune staff reporter

An agreement could mean more money for the county at a time when its public health system is struggling financially while freeing up space at the university's highly regarded medical center to allow it to serve more patients with private insurance.

"What it would mean for us is we would have an increased [reimbursement] of Medicaid," said Dr. Robert Simon, the interim chief of the county's health services bureau.

Simon said the two sides are negotiating and it's "too early to tell" what such an arrangement might mean financially for the county. But the county serves thousands of patients who are not eligible for federal reimbursement, so the more Medicaid patients it receives "the better it is for us," he said.

As a teaching hospital with a significant research component, the University of Chicago's operating costs are higher than those of a community hospital, such as Provident. The two facilities are about 1.5 miles apart on opposite ends of Washington Park on Chicago's South Side.

Simon said U. of C. has raised two main concerns in their talks: whether Provident has enough nurses on staff and the quality of Provident's administration. Simon said he is trying to convince university officials that he has made significant changes in Provident's operation since he took over eight months ago.

John Easton, a spokesman for the medical center, acknowledged the talks but declined to discuss specifics.

"We routinely meet with our fellow health-care providers on the South Side to discuss ways we can all work together to improve access to health care and not just for patients covered by Medicaid," Easton said.

The talks with U. of C. are another example of how the county is struggling to keep its public health system afloat in the face of declining federal revenues.

The county has slashed health-care spending by eliminating medical positions, closing clinics and consolidating departments while scrambling to fix its billing system to generate more money. But even with the changes, the health bureau expects to finish the current budget year with a $50million deficit.

With a new budget year on the horizon, County Board President Todd Stroger recently said that "hard choices" will have to be made now that state lawmakers have rejected his request for a $100million bailout. Stroger has so far declined to elaborate, saying the County Board will have to deal with the situation this fall.

Last month, the county and Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center revealed that they were in talks for a partnership that could include a merger. Those negotiations have not yielded any agreements. Simon said an arrangement with the University of Chicago could be reached regardless of the outcome of the talks with Michael Reese.

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