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Preckwinkle appoints friendlier faces to Cook County health board

Thursday, June 14, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

Nearly half way through her first term in office, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is poised to appoint what observers say are friendlier faces to a county health board she’s struggled with.

During a special county board meeting Friday, she’ll announce her four appointments to the hospital governing board which oversees the county’s vast public health and hospital system. Commissioners must ultimately approve her choices.

The openings come as Dr. Warren Batts, board chairman, and Dr. David Ansell, Chief Medical Officer at Rush University Medical Center, end their four-year terms on June 30th. Preckwinkle decided against reappointing them. Neither could be reached for comment.

Two others are stepping down: Ruth Rothstein, the respected former chief executive of Stroger Hospital who backed Preckwinke’s election campaign, and Sister Sheila Lyne, President and CEO of Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, who is quitting with a year left in her term.

It’s no secret Preckwinkle, elected in 2010, has been involved in a few tugs of war with the health board.

Last fall, the board and Preckwinkle were at a virtual standoff at one point during budget negotiations.

Earlier in the year, she scolded the health board for lousy community outreach as the county prepared to close Oak Forest Hospital in the southern suburbs. Patients-rights groups and hospital staff rallied against the closure and, initially, a state hospital regulator kept the doors open. But Preckwinkle retooled and enlisted the help of black ministers and community activists to get the word out that the hospital was being converted to an outpatient health clinic — and she eventually won the votes from the Illinois Health Facilities and Service Review Board to shut the hospital’s doors and reopen as a regional outpatient facility.

Last year’s search to replace the health and hospital system’s Chief Executive Officer also seemed to be a power struggle. Sources said Preckwinkle was backing Dr. Terry Mason, the county’s chief medical officer who stepped in as interim CEO when William Foley left last year for a private sector job. But health board members prevailed with their choice: Dr. Ramanathan Raju, then the chief operating officer of the New York City’s public health system.

The independent health board was created in 2008 — with Batts and Ansell as some of it’s founding members — under a budget deal. Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin cast the deciding vote for a controversial penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike in exchange for then-Board President Todd Stroger ceding his authority over a system that for years was filled with patronage and bloat to an independent governing board.

While 11-member health board members — who are unpaid — make policy, hiring and contract decisions for a health system that serves the poor and uninsured — the president and county commissioners control the health system’s budget which represents $1 billion of the county’s $3 billion operation.

Preckwinkle’s appointments include: Carmen Velasquez, Executive Director of Alivio Medical Center, which offers public health services in the city’s Latino communities; the Rev. Calvin Morris, executive director of The Community Renewal Society, an economic and social justice organization founded in 1882; and Dr. Dorene Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois.

Edward Michael, a soon-to-be retired executive vice president of Abbott Laboratory Diagnostics, will fill out the year left on Sr. Sheila Lyne’s term.

Preckwinkle said in a statement Thursday that “each of these individuals brings expertise and a fresh perspective to the hospital board. Rev. Morris’ work in the community offers grassroots information from the patient’s perspective. Carmen Velasquez’ experience heading a Federally Qualified Health Center is a background that we have been seeking, and her abilities as a bilingual educator are an additional plus. Dorene Wiese is a community health advocate and educator with an operational background who will bring a unique diversity of ideas to the table. And Edward Michael has a distinguished career in the pharmaceutical and medical supply industry, as well as strong financial and legal credentials.”

Suffredin lauded both the outgoing board members and the new choices.

“They’re well within her authority — she’s putting good people who she has a personal relationship with on the board,” Suffredin said, adding: “And the people who have been there are good people.”

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