In 2008, when we first met Warren Batts, he had just signed on to lead a new panel that oversees Cook County's health and hospitals system. Batts, a Navy veteran and retired business exec, didn't sugarcoat the challenge ahead.
"The Navy would sink if it operated the way Cook County does," he said. "No ship would leave the dock."
We said then that he was the right man to reform county health care. And the last four years have proven that. Batts and his fellow panel members have made significant progress in streamlining and improving the county's health care system.
They shuttered the white elephant known as Oak Forest Hospital. They scaled back Provident Hospital and beefed up the county's network of clinics. They hired a tough, talented CEO, Dr. Ram Raju. He has whittled down a mountain of backlogged billing statements that weren't being mailed to patients and their insurers, and he has helped the county snag more federal funding. Much more needs to be done, though. The health system still isn't achieving the patient revenues it projects. It still isn't collecting all of the available reimbursements. Most of all, it still needs strong health panel oversight to boost quality of patient care while putting its budget in balance: Procurement, computer network and billing problems remain.
That task now falls to four new panel members confirmed Tuesday by the Cook County Board: Carmen Velasquez, executive director of Alivio Medical Center and a Latino activist; the Rev. Calvin Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society, a 130-year-old social and economic justice organization; Dorene Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois, and Edward Michael, former executive vice president of diagnostics at Abbott Laboratories.
Welcome, new members. Just a note about this 11-member panel you've joined: It's not a platform for advocacy. It's a roll-up-your-sleeves panel that needs to better serve often needy patients while eliminating costly inefficiencies.
You probably know the county's health system is still hemorrhaging cash, still bloated and still soaking up too much taxpayer money. It needs to get leaner and more financially sophisticated so it can deliver better quality care for the patients who depend on it.
In 2008, Batts & Co. summed up these priorities when he talked about leading a "cultural change" at county health. Dr. Raju is on the case. We hope you'll protect him from political constituencies that would like to go back to the bad old days, when the County Board could — and did — pour vast amounts of tax revenue into a patronage-riddled and sloppily run health system.
You four newcomers will soon be joined by a fifth. Benn Greenspan, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health, resigned Friday in "dismay," evidently over Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's decision to replace several health panel veterans. In his resignation letter, Greenspan noted his "mutual concern" with Batts over "keeping politics out of the process" of county health care.
That is vital. For years, politicians abused this health system. That cannot happen again. More to the point: You as health panel members cannot let that happen again.
You come from varied backgrounds and probably consider yourselves representatives of different constituent groups. You'll need to put those parochial allegiances aside now. If your reflex is to tell the County Board that what the health system needs is an influx of new county dollars that don't exist, you'll instantly squander the credibility that the health panel established under Batts' leadership. Your main constituents now are the Cook County taxpayers who support the health system's nearly billion-dollar budget, and the thousands of patients who rely on the system. Remember:
• A health system bleeding cash can't serve the people who need it most.
• A health system running perpetual deficits can't provide modern medical, surgical and screening services.
• A health system that clings to revenue fantasies and relies on heavy taxpayer subsidies is destined for the fiscal ICU. Don't let that happen on your watch.
Your challenge, newcomers, is to run the system more efficiently. That way, Cook County will be able to provide better care to every patient.