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Three pros Stroger needs on new county health board

Thursday, May 01, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times

On Friday, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger faces a major test of his commitment to good government.


That’s the deadline for Stroger to pick nine men and women to sit on a board that will run the county’s massive public health care system.  The new board is intended to rescue the system from the grubby hands of politics and place it in the capable care of independent professionals, but Stroger only reluctantly went along with the board’s creation.  He agreed early this year to create the new health care board only after the County Board, at the eleventh hour, agreed to his proposal for a a big sales tax increase.


It’s a small board to run a $1 billion system – including three public hospitals, clinics, outpatient services – and so it will require a diversity of board members, from crack business executives to eloquent advocates for the poor and uninsured who use the system most.  Most of all, Stroger must appoint board members who won’t buckle under to political pressure – even from him.


Stroger is required to select all nine board members from a list of 20 nominees already chosen by a group of expert advisers.   All 20 nominees have obvious strengths, but we would like to single out three in particular.  Put these three pros on the board, Mr. President, and you’re off to a great start:


Warren Batts, a former CEO of Tupperware Corp., Premark International, and Mead Corp.  Batts has served on the boards of numerous other corporations, including Allstate and Sears, Roebuck and Co., and he now teaches business at the University of Chicago.  As a CEO, Batts was down to earth, but he constantly questioned and probed to run the smartest businesses he could.


Norman Bobins, chairman emeritus of LaSalle Bank Corp., a business known for giving back to the community.  Bobins has done fine work while on the Chicago Board of Education and also sits on the board or is a trustee of WTTW Communications, Inc., the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.


Sister Sheila Lyne, president and chief executive officer of Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.  She has a sterling reputation.  A former commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Health, Lyne is a double threat, with a master’s in psychiatric nursing and an MBA from the University of Chicago.


Cook County’s new health care board can afford nothing less than strong executives like Batts, Bobins and Lyne because it will have so much to do in so little time.


In short order, the board must hire a new chief executive to run the county’s health care system.  It must get a grip on the system’s finances, troubled by such basic problems as proper billing, and get a handle on whatever else needs to be fixed and how to do it.


It must establish a good working relationship with the Cook County Board, not exactly the easiest group to get along with.  Trust between the two boards will have to work both ways, no doubt, but we’re most concerned about one way – the crucial need for the health care board to be able to trust the County Board.  The health care board can’t be troubled that county commissioners will ratchet up the political pressure every time a big hospital contract comes up.


And then there is this huge question:  What will happen to the health care board in three years, when, by statute, its time is up?  The better the board does now, the better the case for extending its life then.


If Stroger wants to show he’s got the right stuff, he will appoint a superb new board, let it do its jobs, and create a national model for how to run a public health care system.


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