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Dozens attend raucous hearing about Oak Forest Hospital

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
by Carla Johnson

Charges of class bias erupted Monday at a raucous public hearing on the planned closure of Oak Forest Hospital as Cook County’s strategic health plan continued to hit snags.

Union workers and low-income residents spoke vehemently against a plan to convert the hospital into a regional outpatient health center, some heckling the county’s speakers and others chiding them for living in affluent neighborhoods.

“You all live on the North Side. You don’t come out here,” said Homewood resident Kristine Todd, who was laid off after working at the hospital for 18 years.

About 75 people packed Bremen Township Hall in Oak Forest for the hearing. The testimony will be presented to the state’s Health Facilities and Services Review Board, which is expected to reconsider the planned hospital closure May 10.

At a meeting last month, the board issued an “intent to deny” the county’s request to close the hospital. The county responded by hiring an attorney for up to $60,000 to help retool its application.

In a letter to the state board read at Monday’s hearing, county board President Toni Preckwinkle stated her support for the plan and said funding for that plan is included in the county’s fiscal year 2011 budget. The letter included a subtle warning to the state board about forcing the county to keep the hospital open when the county does not have that option worked into its budget.

“One concern with a denial,” Preckwinkle wrote, “... is that it may ultimately be deemed an attempt on the part of a state agency to require Cook County to maintain certain inpatient serves which are not within its budget and, thus, would be tantamount to an unfunded state mandate.”

The Cook County Health and Hospitals System is the largest provider of health care to Illinois’ poor and uninsured. It’s struggling with rising medical costs, declining federal help, dependence on Illinois’ Medicaid system and patients who can’t pay their bills. The system as a whole provides $500 million annually in free care and serves more than 800,000 patients.

The 213-bed Oak Forest Hospital has seen its inpatient use dwindle to about 40 patients a day. The county hopes to save $25 million with the change, mostly by reducing staff.

Testimony at the hearing was emotional, and an official at one point threatened to halt the proceedings.

“Oak Forest Hospital saved my life,” said a tearful Shirley Dunklin, 65, who said she lost her health insurance when her husband died in 2005 and couldn’t afford hospital care anywhere else. “You are giving a systematic death sentence to the citizens of this community.”

Two elected leaders from Markham testified against the hospital closure. But several health groups submitted letters supporting it as a way to shift resources to primary and specialty care.

Dr. Anwer Hussain, director of Oak Forest Hospital’s emergency department, said the overwhelming majority of the hospital’s emergency patients come with common ailments such as diabetes, asthma and emphysema. They come to the ER because they don’t have access to primary care. The county’s plan would help those patients, not hurt them, Hussain said.

“Through the transformation of the Oak Forest campus, our patients will have access to primary care physicians they need,” Hussain said. “Their illnesses will be treated before they reach the point they have to see the emergency department for the complications.”

The conversion plan includes an immediate care center that will be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., hours that were based on when the current emergency room gets the most visits, Hussain said.

Health system CEO William Foley said the county will pay for and monitor the future care of two long-term patients now living at Oak Forest Hospital if the hospital closes. The two patients have no insurance and are on ventilators. Other long-term patients are covered by Medicaid and will continue to be covered by Medicaid if the hospital closes. Most of those patients will find care in nursing homes, officials said.

Another hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. May 2 at Oak Forest City Hall, by the Illinois House Health and Healthcare Disparity Committee.

Contributing: Correspondent
Jessica Tobacman

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