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County hires law firm to explain health plan

Monday, April 11, 2011
SouthtownStar
by Phil Kadner

Cash-strapped Cook County has hired a private law firm to convince the state it must close Oak Forest Hospital.

Last month, the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board stunned county health officials by announcing its intention to keep the county-run hospital open.

Cook County Health and Hospital Systems had no contingency plan in place to keep Oak Forest running beyond June 1.

Facing a devastating setback to its long-term strategic plan, Cook County’s independent health and hospitals board hired the law firm of Holland and Knight at “up to $60,000” to represent it before the state planning agency.

Listed as one of the firm’s partners on the Holland and Knight website is Anne M. Murphy, former chief counsel for the Illinois Department of Health and former general counsel to the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board.

The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board was known as the Health Facilities Planning Board before pay-to-play scandals during the Rod Blagojevich administration resulted in the agency changing its name and its rules.

It is now illegal to lobby members of the state health board, who must approve plans to open or close hospitals in Illinois.

I telephoned Murphy and she confirmed she would be acting as a consultant to Cook County and likely represent it before the state panel.

The state health planning agency does not have its own full-time staff but uses members of the Illinois Department of Health staff, where Murphy also served as legal counsel.

It was the staff of the Illinois Department of Health that initially recommended that the state agency turn down the county’s plan to close Oak Forest, contending that nearby hospitals did not have the capacity to take on the resulting patient load.

Department of Health staffers also called into question the county’s schedule for creating a new intermediate care facility to serve the south suburbs.

William Foley, the CEO for the county’s health systems board, has since announced his intention to step down, claiming that his decision had nothing to do with the state’s rejection of his health plan.

The Cook County Health and Hospitals board operates Stroger, Provident and Oak Forest Hospitals.

It has been cutting services at Oak Forest Hospital for years and has relocated all but five of its long-term patients.

Due to its multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, the county claims it can no longer fund all three hospitals and has recommended closing Oak Forest Hospital and replacing it with a regional treatment center offering outpatient care in a number of medical specialties.

Oak Forest would no longer offer inpatient care.

After the state panel told Cook County last month it intended to deny its request to shutter Oak Forest, I was curious as to what authority the state had to make sure the hospital continued to offer quality services if it remained open.

How could it stop Cook County from cutting some more, or simply eliminating all funding to the hospital?

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Health sent me a copy of a state statute that reads:

“Any person establishing, constructing, or modifying a health care facility or portion thereof without obtaining a required permit, or in violation of the terms of the required permit, shall not be eligible to apply for any necessary operating licenses or be eligible for payment by any State agency for services rendered in that facility or portion thereof until the required permit is obtained.”

Another section of the rules allows for fines of $10,000 for each 30-day period of a violation of the statute.

Of course, Cook County has already essentially gutted Oak Forest without the state imposing any of those penalties.

What I found more interesting was a statement from the spokeswoman for the Health Facilities and Services Review Board about the likelihood that it would eventually refuse to close Oak Forest.

“The board historically has not pushed for a complete denial of an application to discontinue services,” stated Melaney Arnold.

“In the past, the board has issued a permit, but only with conditions that specifically address medical needs of the community.”

As I read that, Cook County merely has to offer a plan to address the concerns already brought up by the state and it will get its permit to close the hospital.

Cook County health officials, however, have said they must first close Oak Forest in order to come up with the money to offer health care programs to the south suburbs.

I don’t know what this private law firm is going to do to help the county, which already has lawyers on its payroll.

It seems strange that they can explain better than county health officials how the county health plan is going to actually help people.



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