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State OKs plan to close Oak Forest hospital, switch to outpatient care

Joyce Edmond left DebrAtkins arrive meeting closing Oak Forest Hospital for whshould be final vote matter by Illinois Health Facilities

Joyce Edmond, left, and Debra Atkins arrive at the meeting on closing of Oak Forest Hospital for what should be the final vote on the matter by the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Board at the Holiday Inn in Joliet, IL on Tuesday August 16, 2011 | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:29AM



After several attempts to pull the plug on Oak Forest Hospital, Cook County officials on Tuesday finally persuaded the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board to do just that.

The panel approved the plan on a 7-1 vote after listening to two hours of public comments on both sides of the emotional issue.

County board President Toni Preckwinkle said she was “very grateful” for the board’s support and plans to convert the old hospital into a regional outpatient center beginning Sept. 1.

The conversion is part of a three-year plan to invest $19 million in the 1.2 million-square-foot facility, she said.

“It will allow for better and more responsible use of resources to dramatically improve health access for medically underserved residents in the Southland,” she said. “I will continue to utilize my Southland Health Advisory Council to provide input to my office and to the health care system on the delivery of health care throughout the south suburbs.”

The state board placed two conditions on its approval aimed at assuring the plan is implemented as promised.

Members want to meet with county officials in six to 12 months to get a progress report on the new center and to ensure that area hospitals are fulfilling their pledge to accept Oak Forest Hospital patients.

Plan opponent William McNary, of Citizen Action Illinois, and a member of the new Southland Health Advisory Council, urged fellow opponents not to give up but remain “vigilant” and hold the county accountable.

“We must make sure that the money goes to high-quality health care at the regional outpatient center,” he said. “We want the state-of-the-art facility that they promised.”

Beyond that, McNary wants to address the “disparity of health care needs” and ensure that Oak Forest patients are not sent to Stroger Hospital in Chicago.

“It’s a sad decision,” Oak Forest Hospital nurse Tya Robinson-May said. “They (county officials) only care about themselves, not the patients. The blood is on their hands.”

The new health center will add more primary care doctors, create more opportunities for screenings and tests, expand cardiology care, double outpatient psychiatry services and add specialties such as urology.

The county tweaked its plan and expanded the hours of the facility from 16 to 24 hours seven days a week.

Last year, the hospital saw 52,000 outpatients, a number they said will increase by 32,000 once the new center opens.

County officials have maintained that the demand for outpatient care far exceeds inpatient demand.

Susan Fine, spokesman for Ingalls Memorial Hospital, which agreed to accept Oak Forest patients, said the trend is to keep people out of hospitals by expanding outpatient services. She called the county’s plan “forward thinking.”

“Clearly this plan will improve access to care,” board member Kathy Olson said as she voted “yes.”

Markham officials disagreed, calling it a “tragedy” to close the hospital.

“The homeless and the jobless need a place to go,” Markham Ald. Donna Barron said.

State board member Ronald Eaker, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said the county has not kept pace with the needs of the community.

“The death of Oak Forest Hospital began years ago because of the neglect of the Cook County,” he said. “It’s been on life support and you’re asking us to pull the plug.”

County officials claimed they were spending $2 million per month to serve the nine patients there, but some board members said the county dismantled hospital operations over the last several months in an attempt to prove they were underused.

One state board member, David Penn, abstained in voting on the issue, saying, “I’m not convinced by either side what is best for Oak Forest.”



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