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Panel: Trauma care shortage costs lives in Southland



From the Southtown Star:

BY MARY J. PALEOLOGOS Correspondent March 26, 2012 10:30PM

Updated: March 27, 2012 2:09AM 

A person critically injured in a car accident in Park Forest is as likely as not to die before he or she makes it to the nearest trauma center in Oak Lawn to be treated.

That’s what Dr. Ram Raju, chief executive officer of the Cook County Health & Hospitals System, told about 150 people Sunday at Park Forest’s Freedom Hall during a public forum.

How to get another trauma care unit in the south suburbs was the subject of brainstorming by a panel that included Cook County and state officials, health care experts and first responders. Suggestions ranged from having the state or county take charge, to taking legal action, to suggesting a change to the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Chicago), the keynote speaker, said he soon will introduce a U.S. House resolution calling for health care to be constitutional right.

“The right to health care is as important as a right to a gun,” Jackson said. “I’m hoping if we have the constitutional right to a gun, then we should have a constitutional right to health care and surgery once you get shot by someone with a gun.”

When St. James Hospital in Olympia Fields closed its Level 1 trauma unit in 2008 because it could not afford the $10 million annual operating cost, it left Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn as the area’s only hospital with a Level 1 trauma care designation. While all hospitals have emergency rooms capable of treating seriously injured patients, Christ is the region’s only facility equipped to provide the most sophisticated level of trauma care.

Raju said half of trauma deaths occur in the first hour of injury, or the “golden hour of trauma,” making it vital that trauma care is nearby.

“Fifty percent will die before they go to a trauma center,” he said.

Park Forest Deputy Fire Chief Bruce Ziegel said an average trip to Christ Medical Center takes 30 minutes.

“That’s if we don’t have to extricate, which can take 30 to 40 minutes,” he said.

Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims said she believes it takes more than just a half-hour to get to Christ Medical Center. Plus, the emergency room often is full and on “bypass” status, meaning ambulances are forced to take patients even further, to an Indiana hospital or Stroger Hospital in downtown Chicago.

Meanwhile, Christ Medical Center’s trauma center is experiencing its own distress, according to James Doherty, the hospital’s trauma medical director. Its patient base and financial burden are immense, he said.

“Lake County (Ind.) is now ours — we treat Gary now,” Doherty said. “Trauma disproportionately affects people who are uninsured. Seventy to 80 percent of our (trauma) patients don’t have insurance. We have $11.5 million in unreimbursable care from Indiana patients. We need a better funding system for trauma care. The Illinois Department of Public Health and the state Legislature have to do this.”

Sims hopes Jackson can obtain federal funding.

“You can help us take on some of the heavy lifting,” she said. “As eloquent a speaker as you are, I know you can talk someone out of $10 million.”

After the meeting, State Rep. Al Riley (D-Olympia Fields) said a county-operated south suburban trauma center might be a solution.

“Maybe a public model through the Cook County system would be better,” he said. “I think this is a more amenable and appropriate model for a trauma center because the county has more of an egalitarian bent. But this is a big complex issue that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Jackson said he would bring to Park Forest the directors of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to “objectively look at the facts” and see “what they can do to help us with our health disparity problems.” He suggested the region eventually file “an equal protection lawsuit against the state of Illinois” to force legislators to fund an area trauma unit.

“We need our own version of Brown v. Education,” he said. “This will be Health Care v. State of Illinois. The courts move faster than governors.”

Jennifer Artis, a Richton Park trustee and spokeswoman for St. James Hospital & Health Centers, said there are not enough doctors in the south suburbs to staff a trauma center.

“They are going north, living north, spending their money north,” she said.

But Artis suggested a disparity in care for heart disease and diabetes is a bigger problem in the Southland.

“Trauma is about being in a major accident. What about the every day? We have everyday health disparities for our communities,” she said. “A number of us will die because we don’t have the money to get the best care possible.”

State Rep. Anthony DeLuca (D-Chicago Heights) said out of the 71,000 patients annually visiting St. James’ emergency rooms, only 1,000 are trauma cases.

“The issues to overcome are the $10 million cost and doctors who would rather be somewhere else,” he said.

State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) said residents of the south suburbs and Chicago’s South Side are “living in a health care desert.”

The forum was organized by Park Forest Mayor John Ostenburg and the village’s Citizens Advisory Council.

“We’re trying to increase community awareness so people can put on the pressure for solutions to the problem,” he said. “The south suburban area and the South Side of Chicago should not be without emergency care opportunities that everybody else has. We have to make a solution happen.”