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County should prove its plan for Oak Forest Hospital

Friday, March 11, 2011
by SouthtownStar editorial staff

The issue: A new report sheds doubt on the welfare of the Southland’s poorest residents if the county plan to end inpatient services at Oak Forest Hospital is approved this month.

We say: We just don’t trust the promises of better care. The county should be required to prove its plan for the future of Oak Forest Hospital before it is allowed to change its focus or shut its doors.

We have been loud and insistent about the need for Cook County and Illinois to cut the fat — and even deeper if need be in this dire economic climate.

We are prepared to give our pound of flesh from these south suburbs, too. But the plan to close Oak Forest Hospital leaves this region with a gaping hole and no place to stitch the wound.

Oak Forest Hospital, with its emergency room and 213 beds, served nearly 100,000 indigent and poor patients in 2009.

County officials hope to save about $25 million by hospital mergers and consolidations unveiled last year. Already the cuts are under way. The county announced last month plans to sharply cut the Oak Forest nursing staff by 101.

Meanwhile, they promise better, higher-level care.

“We feel strongly that we’re expanding services, not taking services away,” hospital system CEO William Foley said.

Adding outpatient centers and ending inpatient services should translate to shorter waits for mammograms, colonoscopies and other routine exams, those calling for this plan say.

Urgent care, podiatry, opthamology and outpatient pharmacy services would bring new prevention and treatment to those who now are left without access to this kind of care, the county hospital board argues.

And surely much of this is true — in theory. Such services are sorely lacking for poor patients here, and we agree the need is strong. But despite vague promises that Oak Forest Hospital would become a regional outpatient center able to provide a wide range of services, we’ve seen no evidence that such a plan is close to a reality — or that the end to acute-care services would come without harm.

A new report bolsters this concern.

In a study released Monday, the Illinois Department of Public Health says the plan to turn the hospital into an outpatient center would increase the need in the Southland for more intensive care and more beds for long-term care, adversely affecting Oak Forest Hospital’s current patients. Although the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board must approve the plan before Cook County can move forward, the board is not bound to follow the report’s findings.

We don’t suspect this report will matter in the end. But we think it should.

For too many people this hospital is the final safety net. Already other nearby hospitals say they cannot absorb the slack. If the county has a plan to care for these patients — and to offer more services to better their care — it should show the details now.

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