Move Could Free Cook County Health System

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie wants to remove county health system from state's purview.

By Carla Johnson
|  Thursday, May 19, 2011  |  Updated 11:59 PM CDT
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Move Could Free Cook County Health System

Eight days after an Illinois board denied Cook County's request to close a hospital, a Chicago lawmaker introduced an amendment to free the county from the board's authority.

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, introduced a legislative amendment Wednesday that would allow Cook County to close hospitals without approval from the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board.

That board denied Cook County's request to close Oak Forest Hospital in Chicago's southern suburbs on May 10. The rare and possibly unprecedented vote to deny the closure of a hospital hinged on one vote.

Five votes were needed to approve the closure, the single "no" vote sank the county's request because of an absence and three vacancies. The board should have nine voting members but has three spots Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to fill.

"We have said in the past that we were concerned that our strategic plan ... could be derailed because of one 'nay' vote from someone who is not as familiar as we are to the needs of our patients or the communities we serve,'' said Cook County Health and Hospitals System spokesman Lucio Guerrero on Thursday.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle supports the amendment, although she didn't ask Currie to introduce it, said Preckwinkle spokeswoman Jessey Neves.

Supporters of keeping the hospital open criticized the amendment. Lynda DeLaforgue of Citizen Action Illinois called the move an attempt to make an "end run" around the state board.

"Why should the area of Illinois with the most low income and uninsured residents be exempt from any law that seeks to protect access to care and quality care?" DeLaforgue said. "It is sad to see two great reformers like Rep. Currie and President Preckwinkle go down this wrong path."

The county had planned to close Oak Forest Hospital on June 1 and was caught without a backup plan for keeping the hospital open. Surgeries were halted earlier this week when the suburban Chicago hospital's lone anesthesiologist retired.

The county hoped to save $25 million to $40 million with the hospital's closure and conversion to an outpatient clinic.

Cook County's health care system provides $500 million annually in free care and serves more than 800,000 patients. It has been struggling with rising medical costs, diminishing federal help and patients who can't pay their bills.

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