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County ups pressure to close Oak Forest

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
SouthtownStar
by Phil Kadner

Cook County is threatening to sue the state if it refuses to grant the application to close Oak Forest Hospital.

While state law gives the county the authority to operate a hospital, according to county board President Toni Preckwinkle, “it does not impose a legal obligation on Cook County” to do so.

In a letter to the chairman of the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, Preckwinkle states, “One concern with a denial of the Oak Forest application is that it may ultimately be deemed an attempt on the part of a State agency to require Cook County to maintain certain inpatient services which are not within its budget and, thus, would be tantamount to an unfunded state mandate.”

Oak Forest is one of three hospitals operated by the county’s Health and Hospitals Systems Board.

Due to an overall budget deficit and concerns about inefficiencies and spending on the hospitals, Cook County created an independent board to oversee its hospital system. After nearly two years of study and public hearings, that board devised a strategic plan that includes closing Oak Forest Hospital by June 1.

The hospital would eventually be replaced by an outpatient clinic on the current hospital grounds, near 159th Street and Cicero Avenue, around 2015. In the meantime, the hospital’s emergency room would operate as an intermediate care center.

But the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board must grant permission for a hospital to close. In March, the state board announced its intention to deny the county’s request to close Oak Forest Hospital.

Cook County has six months to persuade the state board to reverse its decision.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Health told me that no one at the state agency could recall a time when it followed through with its “intent to deny” a permit to close a hospital.

All the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board is really looking for is some assurance from Cook County that Southland residents who now use Oak Forest would be able to find health care somewhere else.

State health officials also indicated a lack of trust in the county’s plan to open an outpatient clinic and wanted the county to address the needs of Southland patients in a more expedited fashion.

William McNary, co-director of Citizens Action of Illinois, accused county officials of attempting to “muscle” the state board into reversing its decision.

“All the state wants, all we want, is to see a plan from Cook County to address the needs of indigent patients in the south suburbs,” McNary said. “We keep asking for that plan, and all we get is a lot of talk about a lack of money.

“Cook County Health and Hospitals Systems’ top priority is ensuring the availability of high-quality health care services for all medically indigent residents. That’s what we should be talking about.”

In her letter to Dale Galassie, chairman of the health facilities board, Preckwinkle says that Cook County’s 2011 budget “provides funding for the staffing, equipment and construction needs of a Regional Health Center on the Oak Forest Campus to facilitate the transformation ...”

“As Cook County Board president,” Preckwinkle stated, “I am in a unique position to provide assurance that the Regional Health Center on the Oak Forest campus will be funded as provided in the County’s (fiscal year) 2011 budget.”

William Foley, chief executive of the county health care system, announced his intention to resign from office shortly after the state denied the county’s request to close Oak Forest Hospital. But Foley is expected to appear before the state board at its May meeting as part of the county’s effort to get the board to change its mind.

In addition, Cook County has hired a Chicago law firm with connections to state health officials to make the argument for closing Oak Forest.

The county apparently has no contingency plan in place to keep the hospital operating. It has cut inpatient services over the last two years, and the long-term care unit now has only five patients.

While the state may have the authority to open or close hospitals, its ability to force a hospital operator to continue funding a hospital is questionable.

In fact, the state board has done nothing as the county has continued to cut the medical staff and reduce patient care at Oak Forest Hospital over the past few years.

Will Davis (D-Homewood), chairman of an Illinois House committee on health care disparities, has scheduled a hearing on the proposed hospital closing at 1 p.m. May 2 at Oak Forest City Hall.



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