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Thursday, June 10, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

Last week the Cook County Board did something courageous. Yes, you read that right. We're complimenting the Cook County Board, historic enabler of profligate waste and needless taxation.

In a 13-3 vote, the board handed permanent control of the county's health system to the independent panel that has been running the system for about two years.

That's great news for taxpayers and all those patients, many of them impoverished, who depend on the health system. This panel has been effective and efficient, two words not normally associated with the county's system, long a patronage paradise for county pols and their cronies. Against union and political pressure, the health panel has slashed the system's bloated payroll and started to run the system as a business.

With the board's vote, panel members now have all the power they need to finish the reformation of the system.

So let's get on with it.

Last fall, the panel unveiled a consultant's preliminary plan to shut down the severely underused inpatient units at Provident and Oak Forest hospitals and consolidate that care at the also underused Stroger Hospital. The three hospitals are staffed for an inpatient load that doesn't exist. There are better ways to provide services for patients, and savings for taxpayers.

Now, eight months later, a final consultant's report is headed for panel members' desks. It echoes the earlier proposal: Close Oak Forest Hospital's inpatient care and focus there instead on serving outpatients. Savings: $55 million. Convert Provident mainly into an outpatient facility with some short inpatient stays. Savings: $17 million.

The consulting firm explains why today's cost structure is unsustainable: Provident and Oak Forest Hospitals have much higher inpatient costs, even when compared with area teaching hospitals. That's not close to an efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Speaking of taxpayers, County Board members Bridget Gainer and Larry Suffredin asked the panel's leaders to explain why they've paid larger-than-budgeted salaries to lure talent to the system — and why they've given hefty raises to officials who transferred from other Cook County posts to the health system.

Gainer and Suffredin are pushing the panel to exercise more fiscal rigor. "We are about to face a task of epic proportion that will require all of our creativity, all our resourcefulness and discipline," Gainer told us. "We have to be mindful of the fact that we're in tight economic times, where most governments surrounding us are laying people off or giving furlough days. Is this (salary scale) absolutely what's required to keep someone productive?"

We agree with Gainer. The future is now. For two years, panel members had good reason to wonder if they'd be around after 2011 or if the pols would plant their flags and reassert control over their former patronage haven.

No more. Health panel members, you have the power — and responsibility — to make tough decisions, to finish the revolution that started in 2008.

Now deliver.

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