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'Some people will die'

Tuesday, December 08, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger wants to get re-elected so badly he's willing to scare his constituents out of their wits. Look what he had to say last week about spending cuts that will be forced by the half-a-penny rollback in the county portion of the sales tax.

"People will suffer needlessly because of these cuts in funding," he said after the County Board overrode his veto and made the repeal stick. "They will be more sick and more desperate than they are today. And some people will die needlessly for lack of access to the health care our system provides today."

Some people will die needlessly?

Maybe he was talking about ghosts on the payroll.

No, he was serious. So let's talk about this notion that reforming Cook County spending -- removing some $200 million a year in revenue starting in 2011 -- will put people at risk of harm.

Stroger is focusing on the health care system, so let's start there.

An independent board now runs the system. It is on track to cut about 950 positions by the end of 2010, which will save more than $60 million a year.

Does that mean people are going to die?

No. Last year the independent board calculated that if Cook County cut a third of its 7,500 health care workers it would still rank near the upper end of the staffing spectrum compared to similar hospital systems.

Health care experts have advised the board members that they can close the inpatient rooms at Provident and Oak Forest hospitals. Those patients would be treated at Stroger Hospital, which has plenty of empty beds. At the same time, the system could use Provident and Oak Forest as regional "hub" treatment centers, providing outpatient surgery and other specialized services.

Some patients would be hospitalized farther from home. But the changes wouldn't pose a danger to patients.

Underused hospitals and profligate spending don't improve health care. They just waste a lot of money that could be more wisely used to ensure the long-term stability of the system. That stability needs to come from a health system that provides excellent care in efficient ways that the citizens of this county can afford.

The health care system can make these changes on a careful timetable. The sales tax rollback doesn't go into effect until mid-2010 -- though we wish it were sooner. The modest loss of revenue for next year already has been factored into the health system's 2010 budget. The independent panel also has been adept at finding more revenue for health services that doesn't come from local taxpayers.

So Mr. Stroger, let these folks do their job -- the job you couldn't do -- and stop trying to scare people needlessly.

Yes, thanks to the sales tax rollback, county government will have less money to spend. But the County Board has no shortage of ways to make do.

Cut the payroll. Stroger said in 2006 that he would trim the county work force to 22,000. He hasn't; his 2010 budget calls for 23,845 employees. Hold him to his word.

Combine offices. Centralize services. Privatize janitorial duties. Outsource food services. Eliminate redundant print shops. Offload the county road system. These ideas and many, many more have been floating around for years in efficiency studies.

If Stroger has lost the studies, he can ask U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley for them. Quigley tried for years as a county commissioner to get them enacted. Or Stroger could ask Laurence Msall of the watchdog Civic Federation. We bet Msall can recite them from memory.

So let's stop the hysteria about the grim reaper. Mr. Stroger's political career might be on life support, but nobody's going to die if Cook County finally shapes up.

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