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Employee: Hospital isn't billing
Oak Forest revelation gives health system critics new target

Friday, October 26, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Emily Udell, Staff writer

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger said he will look into a claim that Oak Forest Hospital's uninsured patients stopped getting bills four to six months ago, possibly contributing to a loss of revenue for the cash-strapped county.
Bills for self-pay patients at the facility have been piling up since Dr. Robert Simon, the interim chief of the Cook County Health Bureau, ordered the finance department to stop sending them, according to a billing clerk at the hospital.
"Six months now - not one bill has gone out," said Marianne Morang at a public hearing on the proposed county budget. "No bills going out, no revenue coming in."
Jamie McPeek Johnson, director of billing and patient accounting services at Oak Forest Hospital, said the department stopped billing uninsured patients in June or July as part of an effort to restructure the bureau's charity care program.
"It's just with these self-pay patients that we have to take a step back and review our charity care program because we don't want them to be harassed by collection agencies," she said.
She said the self-pay bills stopped going out as county officials worked to make the language on the bills consistent among the three county hospitals. She also said the department still was billing Medicare, Medicaid and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
"We were told to hold all billing because the wording on the bills was not correct," said Morang, who has worked in the department for 14 years. "Patients are calling and asking for bills."
The revelation came at the first of four public hearings on the $3.2 billion budget proposal that includes increases in sales, parking and gas taxes. The projected budget deficit for the next fiscal year is $239 million.
"They're reaching into taxpayers' pockets in order to cover up the incompetence of the political appointees in the hospital system," said Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) after the meeting.
The county has been roundly criticized for mismanagement of the billing system at the health bureau. At least $200 million in bills went unclaimed last year because the county failed to issue invoices.
Johnson said she did not immediately have information on what percentage of bills generated by her department were for self-pay patients or when billing for those patients would resume and referred a reporter to bureau chief financial officer John Cookingham's office. Calls to Cookingham and the Cook County public relations department were not returned by deadline.
Critics of the county's management of the $745-million-a-year system said billing problems at Oak Forest Hospital were another example of the board's inability to reform the embattled bureau.
"I'm concerned that we're in chaotic freefall in terms of billing," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston), who said he planned to propose an ordinance next month that would turn over the administration of the health bureau to an independent trusteeship.
Stroger said he was not aware of the freeze on self-pay bills at Oak Forest as it was stated at the public hearing but he knew the charity care policy was being revamped.
"I trust that the director was giving the factual information," said Stroger, who added he would talk to Simon and Cookingham about the problem.
On Thursday, Stroger appointed a bipartisan task force to study models of independent governance for the health system in response to the findings of an independent panel, which said there was a dire need to turn over the management of the bureau to outside medical experts. The task force was slated to report to the board within 60 to 90 days, according a news release from the county board president's office.


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