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Outgoing Cook Co. health chief praised despite falling revenue

Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Cook County commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday praising outgoing Bureau of Health chief Bob Simon, even as they accepted a report on hospital financials that indicate revenues continued to plummet under his stewardship.

Supporters said the continuing decline in patient revenues was not Simon's fault but the reality of an increasing percentage of indigent patients coming to Cook County Hospitals.

Simon, who took the reins temporarily during the last two budget cycles, was brought in by President Todd Stroger to slash the bureau's budget in the first year, only to mostly restore it in the second.

"Dr. Simon, you are part of my friends and family," said Stroger in praising the outgoing leader.

Hospital employees "were saying (when Simon arrived) 'Dr. Simon came in and, boy, did we hate him,' " noted Stroger. "But as time went on, most of them are like, 'Thank God Dr. Simon came.'"

Stroger and others credited Simon with overseeing a major administrative overhaul of the hospital system that, while not immediately improving financials, will have long-term benefits down the road, they predicted.

But for now, county revenue reports showed that in the first four months of 2007, the Bureau of Health took in $81,831,000 in patient fees, while in the same period this year it collected only $67,952,447 .

Sean Howard, a spokesman for the Bureau of Health pointed out that part of the inability to collect more patient fees stems from an increase in indigent patients.

Stroger said the only thing the fee drop proves is that "Rome wasn't built in a day."

He noted Simon's long-term work in bringing health care to war-torn countries under the most violent of circumstances.

"I don't think most people know that you've been shot twice," Stroger said.

Howard also pointed out that an administration plan to bring in a bill collections company that works on a commission basis was stymied for months by commissioners who could not agree on which company to hire.

The board finally hired such a company Tuesday. That is in addition to the four firms it has already retained to improve the rate of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates.

Simon thanked the board, and pointed out that it was instrumental in cutting health care costs by instituting observation wards 12 years ago, a phenomenon copied by other hospitals.

As for his critics, Simon recalled a situation he encountered during one of his travels in a war-torn country where he wanted to establish a clinic in a cave to protect it from air raids, but two local tribal leaders each wanted the clinic closer to their home base.

As he deliberated what to do, his translator said something to him that has stuck with him ever since, Simon recalled.

"He said, 'Doctor, the man who is loved by everybody is nobody,' " Simon recalled.

Several commissioners left the room rather than join the love fest, including Chicago Democrats Forrest Claypool and Michael Quigley. Another Democrat, Larry Suffredin of Evanston, remained but declined to pose with other commissioners and Simon for a farewell photo.

Suffredin was the key ninth vote in February that allowed President Todd Stroger to raise sales taxes $426 million annually. As one of his conditions, however, he demanded that the hospital system be turned over to a board of independent administrators and that Simon be removed as bureau chair.

The county has not yet reaped those new sales taxes this year, and won't until the last two months of the year because of statutory and state deadlines for raising taxes that were missed.

But in the first four months of this year, sales tax receipts were doing well, in part because bad retail sales were offset by a windfall increase in gas taxes due to the rising price of gasoline, County Comptroller Joseph Fratto explained to the board.

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