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Fate of Oak Forest Hospital before state board

Sunday, March 20, 2011
SouthtownStar
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 system.

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 encyclopedia states.

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 exists.

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 I’m wrong.

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 leaders.

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.



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