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County health board needs to probe itself

Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times
by Sun Times editorial staff

When Cook County commissioners earlier this year socked taxpayers with a sales tax increase -- the highest in the nation -- they offered a carrot along with the stick.

In return for paying higher sales taxes, the taxpayers would get an independent board, free of all political influence, to oversee the county's nearly $1 billion health-care system, which includes the three county hospitals.

The idea was simple. Health-care, business and finance professionals, not beholden to the elected county commissioners, would chop out the waste and cronyism that have infected the county's health-care system for decades, creating a more efficient system that serves the poor better.

Well, it's looking like taxpayers have gotten the ol' bait and switch.

That appears to be the sad moral of a story that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday, by reporter Mark Konkol, chronicling more shenanigans in the county health system.

In this latest installment, Cook County Commissioner Joseph Moreno is accused of pushing a friend and political supporter to get a piece of a multimillion-dollar hospital billing collection contract.

The main contractor, Med Assets Inc., went along with it, cutting Moreno's pal in on the action, until the pal allegedly began overbilling for work. At that point, Med Assets fired Moreno's pal.

Then, a bad thing happened to Med Assets.

We're sure it's pure coincidence.

Another pal of Moreno's, Dr. Luis Munoz, who sits on the county's "independent" health care board, successfully proposed auditing Med Assets.

Now, we're always in favor of keeping a close eye on taxpayer money, but this is one call for an audit that raises questions -- Med Assets had submitted only one bill.

Moreno acknowledges that he recommended his friend's firm be hired as a minority subcontractor, but he denies any undue influence on either his pal's contract or the proposal to audit Med Assets.

The owner of Med Assets views it differently and has reported the matter to the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago.

We're sure Patrick Fitzgerald's crack team will get to the bottom of it, but the county's "independent" health-care board needs to conduct its own investigation. This is a matter that undermines some of the good work the board has done so far.

The board is truly independent only if it is free from the influence of every politician with a buddy who needs work.

And if some members of the board think this is just the dirty reality they must accept to get things done in Cook County, they are wrong.



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