Kadner: County cuts Oak Forest medical care
By Phil Kadner email@example.com June 11, 2013 11:25PM
This April 5, 2007, photo shows Oak Forest Hospital of Cook County, 159th Street and Cicero Avenue, Oak Forest. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: July 15, 2013 3:36PM
Two years after closing Oak Forest Hospital, Cook County is backing away from its pledge to provide 24-hour patient care at a health clinic it established on the site.
The Cook County Health and Hospitals System has notified the state that it is temporarily suspending patient services from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. because three doctors have left and the number of patients at that time of day has been low.
“I am disappointed,” said state Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest). “They appear to be walking away from a pledge that was made, without notifying any elected officials in the area. I know they didn’t notify me.
“If it was a matter of money, we have a way of coming up with funding when it’s needed for the area,” Davis said.
Hundreds of people turned out at an Illinois Health Facilities and Review Board hearing in 2011 to protest the county’s plan to shut down Oak Forest Hospital, 159th Street and Cicero Avenue.
The state review board must approve hospital closings in Illinois, and to get its support, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle pledged to provide 24-hour health care at the outpatient clinic that took the hospital’s place.
“There’s just not enough people coming there (overnight) to make it practical to pay the salary of a full-time doctor,” said county Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago), who had opposed the closing of Oak Forest Hospital.
County health officials contend that they are moving personnel to other shifts to provide better care for patients during the day.
About 19,000 patients use the urgent care center, but only 14 percent of them visit during the overnight shift, according to a letter county health officials sent to the state.
That would be about 2,700 people a year, but Cook County chose to break the number down to 250 patients a month, or eight patients per shift.
Sims emphasized that while she’s not happy about the county’s decision, “county board members no longer have control” over county health system because an independent governing board was established a few years ago to oversee it.
“That’s what people wanted,” she said. “I feel I was elected by people to represent them when it comes to county medical care, but I no longer have any say over the decisions. We provide the financing for the hospital system, but that’s it.”
Preckwinkle and county health officials originally argued that Oak Forest Hospital should close because patient demand was down in the south suburbs. But the county had understaffed the hospital for years, cutting services to the point that it really was no longer a hospital.
The emergency room refused to accept patients brought there by ambulance. Few doctors with specialties were assigned there. The hospital laboratory was closed.
Community activists argued that Cook County had done its best to undermine the hospital’s reputation, but sick people without health insurance continued to walk through the doors seeking medical care.
Preckwinkle had promised a top-notch medical center to replace Oak Forest Hospital, with numerous specialty services that low-income people could normally not access.
But little has been done to market Oak Forest Health Center or its services.
In fact, this newspaper, which has written extensively about the need for better health care for low-income people in the Southland, was not notified about the “suspension” of the clinic’s third shift.
While the county claims that the third shift is being suspended, based on the county’s history there’s no reason for the public to trust such a claim.
“The health care industry is constantly changing, and our job is to decide how needs are best met,” said a spokeswoman for the county health system.
She stressed it helps patients the most to increase staffing during the day, although she could not immediately say whether the three late-shift doctor positions that had been vacant have been filled on the day side.
While the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, promises to provide medical insurance to those who have none, there’s reason to question whether there will be enough hospital beds and medical services in the Southland to care for the needy.
St. Francis Hospital in Blue Island was replaced by the smaller, for-profit MetroSouth Medical Center. The company that runs the St. James hospitals in Chicago Heights and Olympia Fields is seeking a buyer. Roseland Hospital on Chicago’s South Side may close.
Ironically, Cook County is pulling back at Oak Forest just as federal insurance reforms promise to inject billions of dollars into medical treatment for the poor.
“Because of the cuts we have made,” Sims said, “I’m not sure we’ll be able to capture those dollars or recover patients we are sending to other hospitals for treatment.”
What I find inexcusable is that Southland communities pay some of the highest property tax rates in Cook County, but they are among the first to see services cut.
While Chicago continues to force its low-income population south, there’s no increase in social service funds for the south suburbs to deal with that growing population.
County health officials told Southland residents who complained about the closing of Oak Forest Hospital that they should just take a bus to Stroger Hospital on Chicago’s West Side — blissfully unaware that the commute would be nearly impossible for someone who had hip surgery and needed follow-up care.
Church leaders stood alongside Preckwinkle when she announced the closing of Oak Forest Hospital and promised better medical care for local residents.
It didn’t take Cook County long to back away from its promises.
Of course, it has good excuse. Anyone with a brain knew the Southland was going to get the shaft.