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Kadner: County finds funds for inmate care

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle  tours new 'Residential Treatment Unit' next door George N. LeightCriminal Court Building 26th

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle tours the new "Residential Treatment Unit" next door to the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th and California. | Jon Seidel~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 19, 2013 6:23AM



There’s great news from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

The county has opened a $90 million medical center for county jail inmates who are drug addicts.

Stories about the new facility last week didn’t mention the closing of the county’s Oak Forest Hospital, 159th Street and Cicero Avenue, to cut costs two years ago.

Also overlooked was Cook County’s decision to break a pledge to replace the hospital with an Oak Forest Medical Center that would include an immediate care facility open 24 hours a day.

When I called county Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago) about a decision to cut the overnight shift at the medical clinic, she told me the county board no longer has the authority to make decisions about medical treatment.

Sims said all of the real decisions about medical care are now made by the independent board that governs the county health care system.

But there was Preckwinkle last week proudly announcing the new medical facility for the Cook County Jail.

Hey, I believe detainees in the jail deserve proper medical care. I was one of the first to point out that Cook County Jail has become the largest mental health center in Illinois.

That’s because the state and the city of Chicago have been closing mental health care facilities, including the Tinley Park Mental Health Center, which served South Cook and North Will counties.

With all those mentally ill people on the street, police are forced to arrest them and lock them in jail. About 85 percent of the Cook County Jail population also tests positive for drugs.

The new medical facility at the jail, unlike the health center in Oak Forest, will be open 24 hours a day. There will be 200 people on staff and 979 medical beds, although the county no longer offers any medical beds for taxpayers in the Southland.

So if you are poor, law abiding and don’t have health insurance, your access to medical care has been reduced in the south and southwest suburbs.

But if you get arrested for breaking the law, use illegal drugs or have a mental problem, Cook County government will not only make sure you’re health care needs are met, you’ll get three meals a day and lodging paid for by the taxpayers.

“Any comparison between the services provided at the Oak Forest Health Center and the Residential Treatment Unit at the (county jail) is misleading and fails to accurately characterize the care provided by the Cook County Health & Hospital System,” Preckwinkle’s spokesman Owen Kilmer wrote in an email.

I do not mean to be unfair to officials in Cook County who have cut medical care in the Southland. They have to cut somewhere, and they obviously targeted the south suburbs.

A decision was made long ago by the state to pay two to three times as much to keep people in prison than to educate them in the public schools.

I also know that Cook County Jail is full of poor, mostly uneducated people, and a lot of them come from the Southland.

I also know that many of the jail’s inmates are awaiting trial, so they have not been convicted of a crime. Those individuals deserve access to quality medical care.

I also have the misguided opinion that people who break no laws and do not get arrested are deserving of the same sort of care.

As for public health officials in Cook County, it wasn’t long ago that they told people in the Southland to take a bus to the county’s Stroger Hospital on Chicago’s West Side for treatment. Stroger Hospital is 25 miles from Oak Forest Health Center, a journey of nearly two hours by bus.

Before you rush to judgment about the ignorance of Cook County health officials, you should know that many of them don’t have a clue how people from Chicago Heights or Harvey would get to Stroger. It just sounded like a good thing to say at the time.

Sort of like saying that improved medical service for county jail inmates cannot be compared to cuts in service for law-abiding residents.

Nothing any public official does in this state is supposed to have an impact on anything else.

Terrible public schools have no relationship to crime and unemployment.

Higher property tax bills have nothing to do with businesses closing their doors and moving out of state.

Cuts in mental health care have nothing to do with more crazy people ending up in jail or panhandling on the streets.

Stuff just happens.

And the next thing you know Cook County is eliminating the third shift of medical care personnel at Oak Forest Health Center and opening a big medical clinic at its jail with great fanfare.

Why would anyone in their right mind make a comparison?

I suppose I ought to congratulate Cook County officials for their willingness to upgrade the jail’s quality of medical care, while slashing costs at Oak Forest.

Someone has to make the hard, unpopular decisions, and these Cook County officials are willing to do it.

Those who pay the bills may be confused about all of this — even wondering why a drug treatment program is needed for people being held at a jail that ought to be drug free.

Obviously, the people who run Cook County understand that which seems incomprehensible to the people paying the bills.

And so the officials hold a news conference to boast of their achievement in spending nearly $90 million on a new medical clinic at the jail and would chastise those who compare that to the cuts in Southland medical care.

I apologize for initially reacting as if that were a bad thing.

To jail inmates who are mentally unbalanced and addicted to narcotics, the order of priorities probably makes perfect sense.



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