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Cook County health system could get 19 percent less next year from local taxes

Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

An independent board created last year to clean up Cook County’s vast public health system plans to significantly cut its dependence on local taxes—but that’s unlikely to result in any savings for county taxpayers.

The Cook County Board Finance Committee voted 15-0 to approve a preliminary health system budget for next year that includes a local tax subsidy of about $308 million. That is $74 million---or 19 percent---less than approved for this year.

A vote by the full county board on the health budget is expected Wednesday. If approved, County Board President Todd Stroger would be obligated to include the same plan in his overall budget proposal for next year, said Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston).

The health system budget accounts for nearly a third of the county’s annual $3 billion budget. But Stroger is not expected to cut taxes in his new  budget proposal. He's resisted attempts to reduce the penny-on-the-dollar tax increase he engineered last year.

Last year, Suffredin got  Stroger’s support to create the independent board in exchange for Suffredin’s pivotal vote to increase the county sales tax. Suffredin, who now wants to repeal the sales tax increase, says the independent board, which started its work 14 months ago, is working the way he envisioned.

“It is a success, and the new CEO is exactly what we needed,” Suffredin said, referring to Chief Executive Officer William Foley, who in recent months has assembled a new management team to run the system.

Under the plan endorsed today, the overall Health and Hospitals System budget would increase by nearly $63 million, to about $954 million. The increased spending would cover the costs to implement a strategic plan aimed at improving and streamlining operations.

But those additional costs would be more than covered by new revenue from successful efforts to increase federal funding and improve billing, Foley said.

Meanwhile, the system expects to spend $164 million less in local tax revenue by the end of this year than it initially planned.

Next year, the system expects $150 million in federal funds for treating the poor. It also expects significant savings by maintaining lower staff levels and group purchasing of supplies.

Despite having less employees and lowering costs, the system is increasing preventive health services, like mammographies and colonoscopies, Foley said.

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