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Cook County Health board chooses New York hospital executive to be its next leader
Wednesday, October 07, 2020 Chicago Tribune by Alice Yin
An executive who presided over one of New York’s worst-hit hospitals during the height of the coronavirus pandemic was selected by Cook County’s public hospital system to be its next CEO.
The Cook County Health board of directors has chosen Israel Rocha Jr., CEO of Elmhurst and Queens hospitals at the New York City Health + Hospitals system, to be its leader, Cook County Health spokeswoman Caryn Stancik wrote in a Wednesday statement. The candidate still needs to be confirmed by the Cook County Board of Commissioners, which is expected to review his qualifications and vote on him later in October.
Rocha’s experience, which includes guiding the once-overflowing Elmhurst Hospital as it bore the brunt of the coronavirus’ early toll on New York, aligns with the needs of Cook County’s health system that overwhelmingly serves the poor and also was inundated with COVID-19 patients earlier this year, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said.
“This is a very challenging time for health care professionals at every level, particularly in public hospitals,” Preckwinkle said Wednesday. “The height of the pandemic, half of our patient load in Stroger Hospital was COVID-19 patients, so we had a disproportionate share of the burden of caring for pandemic patients. And I’m sure that was his experience in New York, as well.”
Rocha, leader of two hospitals in neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrant, working-class families, also understands Preckwinkle’s vision of racial equity for Cook County, she said.
“I’ve been committed from my first day in this office to work for racial equity and in particular to try to address the challenges faced by our African American and Latinx communities,” Preckwinkle said. “The young man who’s been proposed to lead our health and hospital system comes from New York and shares, I think, that commitment to a focus on racial equity and inclusion in his own health care experience.”
In an emailed statement, Rocha declined an interview: “Out of respect for the formal process, it would be premature for me to say anything more than I look forward to the next steps.”
Stancik wrote that Rocha’s appointment comes at a “critical time” for the health system that runs both Stroger and Provident hospitals. Cook County Health, which continues to provide most of the county’s uncompensated charity care, also is looking at likely budget cuts due to revenue shortfalls from the coronavirus pandemic.
Internally, the financially struggling hospital system has gone through a series of upheavals, beginning with the ouster of Dr. John Jay Shannon as CEO last year. Cook County Health’s board of directors decided not to renew his contract following investigative reports revealing hefty debts and pay raises that the health system disputed. Since then, Preckwinkle and the Cook County Board upped their authority over the independent board by giving themselves power to approve the next CEO, among other oversight measures.
Rocha’s potential exit from the New York City Health + Hospitals systems was met with warm, if bittersweet, congratulations from its top executive.
“When you have great people in your organization, you know that someday they may be lured away,” President and CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz wrote in a statement. “Israel Rocha is an extremely talented, compassionate leader and it’s no surprise that the Chicago Cook County Health and Hospitals system has tapped him as their next CEO. We will be sad to lose him but also are very proud that he will be leading one of the great public systems in the U.S.”
Cook County Health’s interim CEO Debra Carey said Wednesday she would resume her previous post as deputy CEO of operations once the new leader is on board. Her successor faces multiple battlefronts — including a potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act — in the mission to deliver health care to Cook County residents beyond traditional means, such as tackling housing and food insecurity, she said.
“I would like to believe that any CEO will continue to kind of work on those things,” Carey said.
Alice Yin works the overnight shift at the Tribune, responsible for covering whatever breaks. She is a Medill School of Journalism graduate and was a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Michigan before being hired last summer by the Sun-Times. Alice likes to explore new restaurants, go jogging and frequent bookshops.