Saving hospital a matter of will
Monday, October 24, 2005
When the Cook County Board hired a team of consultants to determine if it made economic sense to rehabilitate, rather than raze, the old County Hospital, one might have expected an eventual moment of truth--a thumbs up or down on the idea.
The old hospital, however, was treated as little more than a footnote in the consultants' study, which was unveiled at a recent meeting of the board's Health and Hospitals Committee.
The consultants returned with a panoramic 10-year master plan, including a nearly $800-million price tag, to reconfigure nearly all of the county's medical campus on the Near West Side, including parts of the new Stroger Hospital. For a county government looking at a projected $300 million budget shortfall next year, such visions are more like hallucinations.
The study reported that it would cost $11.4 million more to retrofit the old hospital into office space and other uses than it would to tear it down and build something new.
This has been greeted with some skepticism by commissioners who sought to save the old hospital, and with good reason. The consultants had strong personal and political ties to County Board President John Stroger, who wants to tear down the place.
By a one-vote margin on the County Board, the preservationists managed to stave off the old hospital building's destruction earlier this year. It's essential that they stick together now.
We are on the brink of two bad actions--tearing down a historically and architecturally significant structure and launching a construction boom that the county can ill afford.
Stroger Hospital opened just three years ago, but the consultants reported that it already has capacity problems. There are not enough adult medical/surgical beds, which is forcing patients to be held in "inappropriate environments, including the overcrowded emergency department, the recovery room and the intensive care units." The wait in the emergency department sometimes is so long that some patients walk out without being seen. The hospital pharmacy is overcrowded.
But does this reflect bricks-and-mortar problems or a failure of imaginative thinking? Could better use of Provident Hospital--where, on average, 142 of the 222 beds are empty each day--solve some problems? Could contract arrangements with private hospitals provide an answer? The county could take a comprehensive inventory of its health needs and facilities, and split the load more rationally, rather than expand Stroger Hospital.
Preservationists dispute the finding that restoration would cost $11.4 million more than new construction. The study does not factor in the commercial-use options for the old building that were suggested by developers earlier this year. Ideas to generate commercial revenue could reduce or eliminate the cost difference--if the difference really exists. We hope the County Board will show independence and creativity, and continue to press for a visionary rehabilitation of the historic Cook County Hospital.