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Cook County wins fight to convert hospital to outpatient center


From the Chicago Tribune (link here):

Cook County wins fight to convert hospital to outpatient center

State board OKs Oak Forest Hospital plan over continued protests

August 17, 2011|By Erika Slife, Tribune reporter

After months of contentious debate, Cook County officials won approval from the state Tuesday to close Oak Forest Hospital and turn it into a regional outpatient center.

Patient advocates and union leaders who fought hard against the closure vowed to continue pressuring county officials, as well as suburban hospitals expected to pick up the patient load from Oak Forest, to provide quality care for the poor and uninsured.

Oak Forest Hospital will stop providing emergency room care Aug. 31, county officials said. It will continue to operate a 24-hour immediate care center as part of a concession by the county to win approval from the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board.

Patients who arrive at Oak Forest with critical needs will be taken to Stroger Hospital or nearby private hospitals by ambulance, officials said.

The state board voted 7 to 1 in favor of the county's plan, with one member voting present. The board narrowly rejected the plan in May when there were several vacancies on the panel, which Gov. Pat Quinn has since filled.

The county had planned to close the hospital June 1, and officials said it has cost $2 million a month in unplanned expenses to keep it running since then.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — who has worked with Cook County's independent Health and Hospital Systems to win state approval — said the southern Cook County communities will see an increased level of care with a state-of-the-art outpatient center.

"What we're talking about is better and more responsible use of the massive Cook County health care resources that are currently funding a severely underutilized, outdated and limited service inpatient hospital," Preckwinkle told the board.

The regional outpatient center will include primary care doctors, specialists and diagnostic testing. County officials expect to see it fully operational in three years, said the county health system's interim chief executive officer, Dr. Terry Mason.

The county expects the center to treat more than 115,000 patients a year during outpatient and immediate care visits.

But community activists, union members and two Cook County commissioners argued the county's plan would erode health care services in their region.

Carl Wolf, executive director of Respond Now, a social service agency in Chicago Heights, told board members that closing Oak Forest would bring hardship to patients with no money or means to find health care elsewhere.

"You must vote no and demand that Cook County fulfill its mission to provide quality, comprehensive, integrated health services ... regardless of a patient's ability to pay," he said.

Several state board members voiced reservations with the plan and requested the county report back in a year on its progress. That did not satisfy opponents.

"We will be looking at those disparities and continue to make recommendations to the president and this Cook County Board on what it takes to solve those disparities," said William McNary, co-director of Citizen Action Illinois and a member of Preckwinkle's advisory council on health care.