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County's new top doc sees potential in frayed health system

Tuesday, December 15, 2009
by Alex Parker

After a week on the job, new Cook County Health and Hospitals System chief medical officer Dr. Terry Mason says he sees great potential in the county’s health care system.

The former Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner spent much of his first week visiting county medical facilities and surveying how health care is delivered to county patients.

“The Cook County Health and Hospitals System has an exceptional foundation to expand on going forward. I look forward to working with our CEO Bill Foley, the leadership team and the committed staff throughout our system to repair the cracks that have gone unrepaired up until this point and to restore the level of greatness that is the County health system,” Mason said in a statement issued by the health system.

The health system’s future is up in the air, as independent board members grapple with the long-term consequences of the half-percent sales tax repeal, which will create a $75 million budget gap in 2011. Foley and County Board President Todd Stroger have said recently that both Provident and Oak Forest hospitals could close due to the budget shortfall, though those claims are disputed.

Mason says a key role in his new position will be integrating new ways to improve health care for patients, including continuing its role as a training center, becoming more patient-centric and being more fiscally responsible.

Foley says Mason’s long tenure in Chicago medicine is a boon to the health system.

“His unique combination of medical knowledge, coupled with the deep roots he has planted in this community, has made him a respected voice among many people who walk through our doors,” Foley says.

Mason’s term with CDPH, where he was an ardent advocate for healthy living, was marred by several incidents in the last year.

Last winter, more than a million dollars of medications were found to be expired or stolen from a CDPH warehouse on the North Side.

Mental health advocates have blasted Mason and other city officials for not admitting the role of a flawed computer billing system that led to the decision to close four mental health centers. The centers were eventually allowed to stay open, but billing issues remain.

Mason has a lot to tackle as he takes the helm as the county’s top doc.

Long emergency wait times, patient dissatisfaction, many patients using the ER as a last resort for primary care and an influx of patients from collar counties costing about $50 million a year all complicate the county’s ability to treat patients.

That’s the just a glimpse at the medical side. Health system leaders will have a busy year ahead of them preparing for 2011.

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