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Don't back down

Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

A few weeks ago, the independent panel that runs the Cook County health system unveiled a bold plan to shut down the severely underused inpatient units at Provident and Oak Forest hospitals and consolidate care at the underused Stroger Hospital.

Provident and Oak Forest wouldn't close. They would become treatment "hubs," providing day surgery and other outpatient services.

That makes sense both financially and as a matter of public health. It will save a boatload of money and people will be better off getting treated at thriving health facilities where doctors and nurses are gaining experience every day. These three hospitals are staffed for an inpatient load that just doesn't exist.Cook County health system CEO William Foley said a couple of weeks ago that he hoped for the panel's quick approval of that consolidation plan.

"Chances are very high to get this done," he said.

Today, though, the fast track doesn't look so fast. Foley and health panel Chairman Warren Batts aren't sure how quickly they can push the Provident and Oak Forest recommendations through the panel. They say this will take more time. That some issues have come up. That, as Batts puts it, "the devil is in the details."

Meanwhile, political pressure is rapidly building against Batts & Co.

They're taking heat from unions for the planned layoffs of hundreds of workers and the slashing of open positions. County Board President Todd Stroger has condemned the planned layoffs as an "underhanded scheme to slash services."

We get the feeling that a desperately needed reform -- creating an efficient public health care system -- is at risk of being smothered.

That can't be allowed to happen.

Remember, some months back the Batts panel calculated that Cook County could cut one-third of its health system employees and still rank near the upper end of the staffing spectrum compared with similar hospital systems.

And remember, a few days ago Stroger was bragging at his annual budget address that he was cutting the number of Cook County employees -- he counted reductions in the health system. Note to Stroger: You can't have it both ways.

We're sure some pols who love patronage rue the day that the health system was turned over to Batts' independent panel. They'd love to thwart the plans to create an efficient health system, save the unneeded patronage jobs and then let the panel expire in 2011.

Foley and Batts have the ideas and the smarts to carry out this extraordinary restructuring of health care, something that could serve as a national model for government reform.

They have been refreshingly candid about this dysfunctional system, which has been disastrously mismanaged by generations of Cook County pols. They have moved aggressively to bring change.

But this kind of change -- putting people ahead of the pols -- doesn't happen easily. Not in Cook County. Not in Illinois.

Don't back down. Let's get it done.

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