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Stroger open to outside control of health system
More study ahead for health system

Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger said Tuesday that he would be willing to hand over control of the massive health system, long a rich source of political jobs and contracts, to an independent panel but first wants to study the issue.

"Personally, I have no problems with ... an independent board if we can agree on something that makes sense," Stroger said. "It's obvious that the [County] Board does not work well as it is. There seems to be too much infighting to get anything accomplished at this point."

Stroger's reaction followed the release of a report by a committee he appointed at the suggestion of U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who wants to see progress in the Bureau of Health Services before seeking additional federal funds to run the deficit-ridden system.
The committee, led by Rush University Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Larry Goodman, recommended the creation of an independent board of trustees to govern the bureau, which includes three hospitals, clinics and the Department of Public Health.

The committee found that the County Board's oversight is "not working." It cited a lack of long-term and financial planning, limited authority granted to the chief executive to hire and fire, and concerns that politics plays a role in decision-making.

The county cut services, closed clinics and laid off workers this year in an attempt to close a budget deficit. Despite those efforts, Goodman said the health bureau will end the year with a $69 million gap, in large part because federal funding has been on the decline.

Stroger will unveil his 2008 budget plan Wednesday, and it is expected to include a call for higher taxes. Stroger's critics say he has not made enough strides toward reforming the county to deserve a tax increase.

Republican Commissioner Timothy Schneider said he was told by administration officials to expect higher sales, gasoline and parking taxes when Stroger unveils his spending plans, as well as a call to add 800 employees to County Jail and the juvenile detention center. Administration officials declined to comment Tuesday.

Stroger, who was elected last year, has been struggling to get Washington and Springfield to provide the county with more money to run its health system. A meaningful step to altering the oversight of the health bureau could go a long way toward combating the view that Stroger hasn't enacted enough reforms. With its $800 million budget and 7,000 employees, the health system is by far the largest piece of county government Stroger directly controls.

In a written statement issued Tuesday, Durbin said the system "cannot survive without immediate, far-reaching reform."

Stroger, however, didn't seem to share Durbin's sense of urgency. "I don't know how fast it's going to happen," he said. "It's like everything else, you got to get together, get people to talk about what they will agree to."

Goodman said there are numerous ways to create an outside agency and that critical questions will come down to who gets to appoint its board members. The committee did not recommend any one approach.

The County Board voted to create a task force that would return recommendations by Jan. 15.

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