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Cook County health care CEO William Foley resigns

Friday, March 25, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Erica Slife

The CEO of Cook County's independent health and hospital board resigned Thursday, just days after failing to win approval for a controversial plan to shutter Oak Forest Hospital.

Although officials say the timing is purely coincidental, William T. Foley's resignation comes at a critical time for the Health and Hospitals System Board as it tries to overhaul health care and consolidate services.

Foley, 60, declined to comment. He accepted a job as CEO for Vanguard Health Systems running hospitals in the Chicago area, said Warren Batts, chairman of the Health and Hospital System Board. Foley's resignation is effective May 6.

"Anytime you have a highly talented, highly visible CEO, you're at risk for someone — in an industry that has a tremendous need for talented CEOs — you're always in a risk for that person to be lured away," Batts said.

Foley was the first chief executive of the county's vast public health system after it became independent, and commissioners credited him with stabilizing accounting practices by improving billing and collections, hiring competent staff with hospital administration backgrounds and preparing the hospital system for federal health care reform.

"I think he was very dedicated to the mission of public health care," said Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago. "I think he knew that county health system could not continue to operate in the way that it had and that he was committed to pushing through, along with the board, the changes that he felt needed to happen."

However, some commissioners, including Gainer, have been critical of Foley's leadership, such as salaries awarded to midlevel managers. Others have questioned the amount of minority participation and quality of care. The board, which was created in 2008, hired Foley at a salary of $500,000 a year in March 2009.

"We owe him a debt of gratitude because he stabilized the operational system and has given us a foundation to build on," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-EvanstonChicago.

Foley's resignation is the second setback for the system this week. On Monday, the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board denied a permit to the county hospital system to close Oak Forest Hospital and transform it into an outpatient clinic.

County officials have been working on the plan for 15 months, and a balanced county budget is contingent on hospital operations being discontinued by June 1. Health system officials are hoping that the state board will reconsider its plan at a May 10 meeting.

The county health system provides care for almost 800,000 residents who don't have health insurance and has a budget of $1 billion a year.

"Even though Mr. Foley is moving on, I'm sure his successor will be able to implement the plan that he and the independent board and the County Board adopted," said Commissioner John Daley, D-Chicago.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said an interim CEO will be picked Friday and a nationwide search will be conducted for a permanent replacement.

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