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Suffredin defends vote switch

Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Pioneer Press
by Todd Shields

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-13th, of Evanston said he voted for the unpopular county sales tax increase last year because it created an independent Cook County Health Board charged with revamping the county's financially plagued health-care system.

Last week Suffredin voted with the majority to repeal that 1 cent sales tax increase, reversing his position less than a year later. The county sales tax became effective July 1, 2008.

He defended his about-face by saying the federal stimulus money the county received, as well as the Cook County Health Board's efforts, were two strong reasons to end the increased county sales tax.

"It was essential getting an independent Health Board. Doing so was the right vote at the time," Suffredin said. "When I voted for the sales tax, the county was $286 million in debt. Because of the federal stimulus package and a new Medicaid agreement with the state, we will have a $120 million surplus" by the end of the fiscal year, November.

Suffredin also said the Cook County Health Board has reduced nonmedical Cook County employees by 500, and the board worked to bring in $60 million more this year in paid medical bills.

However, in a report issued by the chairman of Cook County Health and Hospital Systems to every commissioner, Warren Batts, said an in-house study revealed county health-care management lacked "timely and accurate information" to correct financial problems.

In response, Batts said an informational system will be in place this year, mainly to improve further billing and collecting.

Batts also said the county needed more employees with experience in informational technology related to health-care systems, along with a greater investment in computer equipment.

"However, it should be noted that even in this tough economy of increased layoffs, these specialized IT staff are very hard to come by," Batts said.

Suffredin believes fellow commissioners could repeal Stroger's veto with the "yes" votes of commissioners Earlean Collins, D-1st, and Deborah Simms, D-5th.

Both women did not vote in the commissioners' repeal last week, but Suffredin said their two votes could override Stroger's veto.

In a statement explaining his veto, Stroger said commissioners were responsible for years of financial problems in Cook County, and they voted to repeal the tax in exchange for "political points."

"I refuse to play that game. Somebody has to show leadership," he stated. "I will not jeopardize the well-being of county residents by allowing this faction of commissioners to end funding for vital services and destroy our health and public safety operations."

He argued that rolling back the sales tax would hurt health-care services -- including closing Provident Hospital and a dozen clinics that serve poor people.

By Stroger's calculation, that could mean revenue losses of about $300 million.

-- Sun-Times News Group contributed to this story.

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