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Our View: Control of County's Aging Health System

Sunday, October 28, 2007
Daily Southtown

The Issue: A group of concerned citizens has proposed that an outside group of experts take control of the county's ailing health bureau.

We say: This proposal should be adopted. Politics needs to be moved from the system if it ever is expected to become effective again.

A group of educated, caring and responsible Cook County civic leaders has come up with a wonderfully innovative idea to help rescue the county's floundering public health system. A measure of just how much potential this plan has can be found in the fact that the established powers that be in Cook County - the ones who created and have perpetuated the current health care mess - are already lining up in opposition of it.

They're opposed because it would reduce power and create accountability, two consequences that would cause great angst within the regular Democratic Party of Cook County.

The group, called the Emergency Network to Save Cook County Health Services, has proposed establishing an "emergency trusteeship" that would take control of the county's public health bureau away from the Cook County Board for a period of three years, by which time needed reforms could be made to salvage a system that serves a million residents annually.

The trusteeship would be made up of nine individuals - six from prominent medical organizations, one from the Chicago Federation of Labor and two from the county board itself. This panel would be charged with ensuring high-quality health care, improving fiscal practices, eliminating political interference and streamlining governance.

In the process, it is hoped the panel would restore "faith and public trust in the Cook County health care system," as one proponent of the plan said.

The system long has been at the center of controversy. After decades of being a haven for patronage workers, the health bureau has been struggling to fulfill its mission. Though dedicated doctors and nurses provide the best care they can, the bureau has been spinning out of control because of poor oversight, financial mismanagement and low employee morale.

In an attempt to cut costs amid a severe budget crisis, the county board earlier this year eliminated 500 doctors and nurses and closed several health facilities. The long-term care facility at Oak Forest Hospital, which had a well-deserved reputation for providing quality care, was shut down. Meanwhile, $200 million in Medicare and Medicaid funds remained uncollected by the county because of grossly negligent administrative practices.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) warned County Board President Todd Stroger that the county was at risk of losing federal funding unless it cleaned up the health bureau's act. That led to an independent panel's examination of the system. Much to Stroger's chagrin, the panel came down hard on the county, and its findings boosted the Emergency Network to Save Cook County Health Services' call for an outside oversight board.

An ordinance creating such a board soon will be introduced by Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston). We urge the board to approve it. However, it's unlikely Stroger and his cronies, who have the majority on the board, will support it. They don't want to rock the boat, even if it is sinking. But the oversight board is the best idea we've heard of to hoist the system out of the quagmire it's in. By rejecting it, Stroger and his gang would in effect be saying they're not serious about instituting needed reform. But what do they care? It's only people's lives we're talking about here.

The only way to fix this system is to take politics out of it. But that's a surgical procedure even the best doctors may find impossible to perform.

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