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Cook County's health services chief submits resignation

Thursday, March 06, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Dr. Robert Simon, the oft-criticized interim chief of the troubled Cook County public health system, said Wednesday that he has submitted his resignation after he achieved his goals of maintaining basic services and helping fix the system's budget woes.

Simon, who took the job 14 months ago, often sat on the political hot seat after his appointment by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, whose late father, former board President John Stroger, was Simon's patient.

Simon, who was previously the county's head of emergency medicine, took the brunt of criticism for the implementation of $85 million in budget cuts that slashed the Bureau of Health Services' clinic system, dramatically slowed some routine care and demoralized public health-care workers. Simon said the process of making layoffs was "hell," but added that he accomplished his two main goals.

The first was making budget cuts while maintaining essential services and not closing any of the county's three hospitals. The second was seeing through this year's budget process, which resulted in a $122 million boost in health-care spending, to $870 million, and the hiring of hundreds of new employees.

"Now it's time for them to move on and find a permanent person -- no sour grapes or anything," he said. "I came into this job saying I didn't want to be a permanent chief."

But Simon also expressed "frustration with the County Board process, with the process of contracts and procurement."

Simon said he submitted his resignation, effective March 30, to Stroger on Tuesday -- four days after an 11th-hour budget compromise that boosted sales taxes and also started a process to place the health bureau under the administration of an independent board for three years.

Stroger plans to discuss the resignation with commissioners and might ask Simon to stay on during a transition period, said Sean Howard, spokesman for the bureau.

Simon said he was not sure how he would respond if asked to stay on during a transition.

"I would consider it; I'm not sure I would," he said. "I'm just tired. I'm physically exhausted. It's been 14 months of 80-hour weeks, away from family."

Simon also said he never planned to stay on permanently and long has advocated independent governance -- though he reiterated a warning contained in his resignation letter.

"History, as well as recent experiences in other public health systems, has taught us that independent governance is not a panacea," he wrote.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston), who drafted the independent-governance ordinance and cast the decisive vote for the tax increase, has been critical of Simon and said he was pleased by his resignation.

"I think he understood it was time to go, and I think it is a good day for the system," Suffredin said. "He's a really good emergency-room director. But he's never understood the complexities of administering a large health system like this one."

Other critics complained that Simon's management style was brusque at best and unkind at worst.

"Many wonderful people left the bureau because of him," said Dr. Quentin Young, who headed an early committee appointed by Stroger soon after his election to examine the future of the health bureau.

Other doctors offered praise.

"Dr. Simon walked in as interim bureau chief, and he was directed to cut $100 million from the budget in six weeks," said Dr. Avery Hart, chief of general medicine and primary care at Stroger Hospital, the bureau's largest institution.

"He promised us that he would restore funding so we could rebuild services, and he accomplished it against long odds," Hart said.

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