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County not ready to abandon plan for Oak Forest Hospital

Friday, March 25, 2011
by Lauren FitzPatrick and Mike Nolan

Lee Mayberry has done his part to protest changes at Oak Forest Hospital.

The legally blind man who once worked at Oak Forest, then became a loyal patient even after he got health insurance, showed up Monday at a state public health board meeting to holler for the hospital where, he said, he “can still afford to be sick there.”

“You still get a bill,” Mayberry said. “It is an affordable bill.”

He believes one thing persuaded the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board to snub a county request to turn Oak Forest into an outpatient clinic.

“The truth,” Mayberry said Tuesday from his Lansing home. “This plan is idiotic.”

The truth included a recent report from the review board’s staff that pointed to a dearth of hospital beds among private south suburban hospitals.

Some of those hospitals have said they cannot absorb Oak Forest’s patients.

But Cook County Health and Hospitals System spokesman Lucio Guerrero said the county felt it had a “compelling argument” for dropping inpatient services at Oak Forest and couldn’t understand why the board of review “voted the way it did.

“After 18 months of us doing a strategic plan and research, we were pretty confident we knew what is needed in terms of health care” services, Guerrero said Tuesday. “We think a regional outpatient center is the way to go.”

He reiterated that the majority of hospitals near Oak Forest had indicated there would be no adverse impact on them should inpatient operations close.

And the board’s vote doesn’t mean the county doesn’t have another shot at swaying members to reconsider.

Guerrero thought the county would try to get on the agenda for the board’s May 10 meeting but didn’t know for sure whether the deadline to be on that agenda had passed.

Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the department would review any new information submitted, then file a report with the review board.

Arnold said that, historically, the board “has not pushed for a complete denial of an application to discontinue services,” and that the state might seek other conditions from the county in order to approve the proposal.

Guerrero said the county would submit more information to the state to “try to make clear what is going to be done” at Oak Forest. He thought that perhaps there was the impression that the outpatient center would have to be created from scratch.

“We have to do a better job of explaining that many of those (outpatient) services are there now, but at a bare-bones level,” he said.

Feeling the pain

Eliminating inpatient services at Oak Forest would “have an impact on all the hospitals in the area,” but Blue Island’s MetroSouth Medical Center plans to “step up to help those patients during the transition,” said Denise Cameron, MetroSouth’s vice president of business development.

Oak Forest has typically served as the area’s “safety net” hospital, absorbing a large number of non-paying customers. Should MetroSouth suddenly see a big surge of patients who lack insurance or are unable to pay, it would “definitely put a strain on us” financially, Cameron said.

“One can only do so much charity care,” she said.

Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn anticipates its ambulance traffic would rise should Oak Forest cease inpatient services.

“If they totally shut down their services there, the overcrowding we routinely experience in the emergency department is going to get worse,” said Dr. Chintan Mistry, a seasoned ER doctor who heads the emergency department at Christ and Hope Children’s Hospital.

“Like every other major teaching center, we are often times filled to the brim.”

It’s the hospitals closest to Oak Forest that will be impacted most, he said, such as Ingalls Hospital in Harvey.

Ingalls can’t take all of Oak Forest’s 30 to 40 daily inpatients, said Joe Moser, a vice president of development at Ingalls Health System, who talked to Cook County officials about their plan.

“Some days, we don’t even have a bed available,” he said.

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