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New York hospital executive officially appointed as next Cook County Health leader, vows to be ‘fiscally, financially resilient’
Thursday, October 22, 2020 Chicago Tribune by Alice Yin
An executive who presided over two New York hospitals during one of the grimmest moments of the COVID-19 pandemic will lead Cook County’s $2.8 billion public hospital system as it confronts its own financial battles while bracing for a second wave of the coronavirus.
Israel Rocha Jr., CEO of Elmhurst and Queens hospitals at the New York City Health + Hospitals system, was ushered in with a 17-0 vote during a Thursday Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting, making him the next CEO of Cook County Health. He plans to start in December and will have a base salary of $650,000 with a potential 10% bonus and 20 weeks' severance pay.
Rocha told reporters on Thursday that his mission is twofold: delivering the highest caliber of medical care, and tightening finances where needed.
“We have to make sure that we are fiscally, financially resilient to be able to chart a future that isn’t in days or years, but in decades,” Rocha said. “That means that we have to run a system that is resilient to be able to honor the trust of the people in the future.”
Rocha’s appointment means the end of a long search process that began in January following last year’s ouster of Dr. John Jay Shannon as Cook County Health CEO. The system’s board of directors decided not to renew Shannon’s contract after investigative reports revealed hefty debts and pay raises that Cook County Health disputed.
Since then, Cook County Board President Toni 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.
The new leader of Cook County’s public health system that runs Stroger and Provident hospitals will have to grapple ballooning costs from uncompensated medical care, of which the two hospitals provide the majority within the region, as well as likely budget cuts due to revenue shortfalls from the coronavirus pandemic. There also is the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a landmark law that made possible the massive insurance program known as CountyCare. The county health system could lose about $1.4 billion should the ACA be dismantled.
Preckwinkle told reporters on Thursday that the county’s uncompensated care, which could balloon to $487 million next year, would surely be one of Rocha’s top priorities and that it was time the dozens of private hospitals in the area started pulling their weight. In the beginning of the year, Preckwinkle met with some of those hospitals' officials and told them the county would “revisit this issue” after appointing the next Cook County Health CEO.
“So I put them on notice,” Preckwinkle said. “This was a challenge we are all going to have to try to address together. Let’s put it that way.”
Rocha, who turned around Elmhurst Hospital from being $100 million in the red to breaking even within 36 months, said he is a “details person.” He intends for Cook County Health to diligently track down medical care reimbursements and match patients with the right insurance in order to ease costs for the safety net system, he said.
“We want to care for folks, we want to bring them in, and that’s great for this one episode,” Rocha said. “But we have to really be diligent in trying to qualify individuals for all of their care plans because we want to take care of them not only now but into the future.”
As for uncompensated care, Rocha wants to “leverage” private hospitals' strengths in order to partner with them in tackling the issue, he said.
Rocha, a Texas native who once worked as a legislative staffer in Congress, also said he is prepared to mobilize for a potential ACA repeal. That would entail keeping up with each step of the process and working with Washington on communicating Cook County’s needs.
“One of the beautiful things about Cook County is that they’re a national leader,” Rocha said. “And when they say there are significant issues, people will pay attention. So immediately, we would do the research, then we would be not shy about advocating of what was needing to be done.”
But before any tectonic shifts in health care law would begin to materialize, the most immediate issue at hand is the coronavirus, which has already begun spiking again in Illinois and the Chicago area. Rocha, who guided the once-overflowing Elmhurst Hospital as it bore the brunt of the coronavirus' early toll on New York, may again be in a fraught situation.
“We’ve got some real challenges in our health care system related to the second wave of the pandemic,” Preckwinkle said. “It’s not whether it’s coming; it’s just when.”
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.