Fate of Oak Forest Hospital before state board
Sunday, March 20, 2011
by Phil Kadner
A state agency will likely decide Monday whether to allow the closing of Oak Forest Hospital.
The Illinois Health Facilities and Review Board,
meeting in Joliet, will hold its final hearing on the request by Cook
County to close the hospital, which is part of the county’s health care
Oak Forest Hospital, originally the site of the
Cook County Almshouse, was the first public institution specifically
established to provide long-term refuge for the most destitute people in
the Chicago area, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
“These were people with chronic physical
illnesses or disabilities, mental illness or retardation, elderly
people, or single mothers unable to work for a living ...” the
It was, in fact, the county poor farm at one time.
Decades ago, Chicago shipped its tuberculosis
patients to “the country,” which meant Oak Forest. The indigent of Cook
County were also buried there at one time, and the cemetery still
The Rock Island Railroad, which now stops at 159th Street and Cicero Avenue, ran right into the hospital grounds.
In more recent times, Oak Forest Hospital has
specialized in the care of poor people who couldn’t breath on their own
and needed ventilators.
Throughout its history it has been neglected by
Cook County, which often bloated its payroll with incompetent and
do-nothing patronage employees. Despite that, there were gifted doctors
and nurses who provided what patients and their families would call
top-notch, loving care.
The sprawling campus of the hospital is now full
of empty buildings. For years, Cook County has been chopping away at the
budget, and the pace of cuts has increased since 2009 as the county’s
financial problems worsened.
Only five of the long-term ventilator patients
remain at Oak Forest, as the rest have been shipped out to nursing
homes. The emergency room remains open, but ambulances are not allowed
to take patients there.
Still, people walk in off the streets.
After a year-long study, there’s a plan to close
the hospital and replace it with an urgent care center and specialty
clinics to prevent and treat all sorts of illnesses. A spokesman tells
me there are plans to spend more than $20 million on these projects if
the state agrees to close Oak Forest.
I have written several stories about the efforts
of those who want to keep the hospital open to inpatients. Some may
conclude that I oppose Cook County’s cuts and reforms.
Actually, I’m just skeptical about the county’s willingness to help the poor of the south suburbs in the future.
I don’t believe it will do everything it promises
or that health care planners really care about the people here. I hope
But whenever cutbacks are proposed at the
county’s Stroger Hospital in Chicago, there are outcries in the
community and outrage expressed by influential political and civic
Chicago TV stations and newspapers focus a lot of
attention on the needs of the people in the city and what cuts at
Stroger would mean to them. The same attention never seems to be focused
on the community served by Oak Forest.
So the intent of my columns was to say: Let’s
focus on this issue and make sure the needs of the south suburbs are
met. I reminded people of the county’s history of neglect and
mismanagement of Oak Forest.
Some county officials seem to believe that
history justifies closing the hospital. I think it means Cook County
can’t be trusted.
The staff of the Illinois Health Facilities
Review Board has recommended against closing Oak Forest, claiming that
the resulting patient load could not be adequately handled by nearby
hospitals, as the county contends.
A bus will be leaving Oak Forest Hospital at 8 a.m. Monday to take supporters of the hospital to Joliet.
Whatever the board’s final decision, it should be based on what’s best for the south suburbs.