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Paging Dr. Stroger ... Stat!

Monday, November 09, 2009
The Chicago Current
by Alex Parker

In the year and a half since the Cook County Health and Hospitals System was wrenched away from the Cook County Board of Commissioners, the independent board has taken drastic steps to increase revenue and improve efficiency and services to patients.

But that’s included hundreds of layoffs and the prospect of ending inpatient services at Provident and Oak Forest hospitals, which critics say will harm health care on the South Side of Chicago and the south suburbs.

The audacity of the independent health board has irked Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, who has in recent weeks launched a series of attacks on its members.

It’s clear the health system will take on an important role in Stroger’s bid for reelection, in which he will also defend an unpopular sales tax and scrutiny about the county’s hiring practices.

The tax hike, he says, is integral to preserving health care in the county.

“Right from the beginning, if it weren’t for me signing that one cent, we wouldn’t have a health system, we’d have a hospital,” he told the Current. “It’s me that’s put his neck on the line to make sure the services are out there.”

Can Stroger bank on the health system to prop up his campaign? Local political observers say his attitude toward the health board will make it difficult for him to be positioned as a champion of health care. But Stroger argues that without the sales tax, health care in the county would be in trouble.

Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says Stroger will try to tie some of his unpopular decisions to the stability of the county health system.

“He’s going to try and claim the reason he had to do the sales tax increase was to save health care at Cook County Hospital and the satellite hospitals in Cook County,” Simpson says. “It’s overblown.”

As county commissioners tried to eliminate the sales tax, Stroger repeatedly said cutting the tax would threaten the county’s health services. But the health system’s budget is relying less and less on county subsidies, furthering the appearance of independence from downtown influence.

“Personally, I think that the board doesn’t have any oversight, and that means they have too much power because they don’t have a constituency that they have to talk to,” Stroger says. “So I’d like to rein them in some and make them accountable to the (county) board, or at least have some kind of connection to the board.”

Margie Schaps, executive director of the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group, says Stroger needs to zero in on a consistent message.

“On one hand, he’s saying how great it is they’ve made layoffs in the entire county. On the other hand, he’s saying it’s bad they’re laying people off in the county health system,” Schaps says.  

Schaps says it’s important to keep bureaucracy away from the health system.

“We believe it is important to have an independent board for this health system because the issues are very complicated,” she says. “To rely on any set of public officials to manage this system is really more than we can expect.”

Management changes at the health system recently led to $200 million in savings and $160 million in new revenue. 

But Suffredin says it will be difficult for Stroger to claim credit for that. 

Stroger, for his part, says he had been discussing the possibility of getting untapped federal dollars before the independent board was created.

“Had he wanted to cooperate with them and work to maximize federal dollars and maximize outreach to other people, I think he would have been in a position to take credit for them,” says Suffredin, who negotiated the creation of the independent board in exchange for his vote on the one-percent sales tax last year.

“Now he’s at war with (the health board), so how can he take credit for things he disagrees with so strongly?”

But Stroger says some of the credit should fall to him. That it’s not, he says, is not surprising.

“I expected we would be forgotten by most as the people who really got the ball rolling in changing the system,” he says.


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