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Cuts in store for Oak Forest Hospital under county proposal

Thursday, October 15, 2009
by Maura Possley

Cook County may eliminate inpatient care at Oak Forest Hospital and make way for expansion of its rehabilitation services and outpatient care.

The scenario for the safety-net hospital is included in a draft of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System's long-term plan expected to be finalized next month.

The draft calls for making Oak Forest a "community hub," providing primarily speciality outpatient care - services such as primary care, gynecology or dermatology, said Dr. Homer Abiad, president of the Oak Forest medical staff.

But if a patient needed to be admitted to a hospital, they'd have to head north to the county-run Stroger Hospital on Chicago's West Side or go to other area hospitals with which the county will establish new partnerships.

"Obviously, the number of inpatients isn't anywhere (near) where Stroger sees, but it's still a significant amount, and where those patients would go to receive inpatient care is unclear," Abiad said. "Certainly we have a hard time conceiving that they would all either go to Stroger for inpatient care or they would all be absorbed by the community hospitals."

That's because Southland hospitals are already grappling with increased numbers of uninsured patients because of the rise in unemployment during a recession.

But the county planned to contract for the services inpatients need or in other cases send these patients - most of whom are uninsured - to hospitals needing to provide more charity care, hospital system spokesman Lucio Guerrero said. Talks had already begun with University of Chicago Hospitals and Rush University Medical Center, and more were planned.

"We can't provide everything to everybody, so we collaborate to create access," Guerrero said. "We had to find ways to better utilize (Oak Forest Hospital) to make it more of a provider to the area. It's finding ways to be creative with resources."

Oak Forest has about 60 patients; five are long-term care, 15 are receiving rehabilitation and the remainder are general inpatients.

Already this year, Oak Forest has seen its inpatient surgeries moved to Stroger. Two years ago, the majority of its long-term care program was also axed. All the while, community advocates have decried the lack of health care access here.

But the county system meanwhile is facing a budgetary nightmare. The hospital board is under pressure to cut tens of millions from its budget, which at $882 million this year makes up the bulk of Cook County's overall budget.

This strategic plan brought to the nine-member panel, which was created in 2008 to depoliticize the operation of the county's massive and cash-strapped health system, is part of a mission to streamline services.

The board planned to finalize the plan next month after a series of public hearings. The plan must then go before the Cook County Board.

"That's the main issue for our patients, getting them to Stroger. It's just such a distance," Abiad said. "Obviously we're hoping the people in the community will make their voices heard."


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