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Doctors warn of dire cuts

Thursday, January 18, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

Sharp cuts to medical care at Oak Forest Hospital could result in more patients dying, and it's worth raising taxes to prevent that, doctors at the hospital said Wednesday.
"The rapidity with which these cuts are being made is breathtaking," Dr. Jody Ashenhurst said during a rally outside the sprawling hospital complex at 159th Street and Cicero Avenue. "The resulting chaos is going to lead to less and more fragmented patient care and to medical errors. Which can obviously lead to further disability and perhaps even death."
About 25 doctors and nurses chanted in the bitter cold at a rally organized by the Service Employees International Union, which is trying to unionize doctors at some county facilities.
The protesters were trying to build opposition to a proposed $12.6 million cut in funding that's included in Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's proposed 2007 budget.
"With more budget cuts at Oak Forest Hospital, there will be a huge impact on the public, especially those who live in the south suburbs -- people without health insurance and without money," union steward Dr. Srinivas Jolepalem said. "If we cut health care for these indigent patients, where will they go?"
The 2007 budget, as issued Tuesday, privatizes laundry and maintenance services at the hospital but makes few other specific cuts. Instead, it calls for $24.7 million in unspecified cuts to be made before the budget passes next month.
The lack of detail worries doctors, Jolepalem said.
"We're still waiting to get the final report," he said. "One of the (proposals) given to us is they will be cutting long-term care. Right now, we have 160 beds. They want to cut it in half. ... Right now, all of those beds are full."
Oak Forest was once the largest long-term-care hospital in the country and remains the county's only rehabilitation center. Patients who are seriously wounded or injured or who are recovering from surgery routinely go there to learn to walk or talk again.
For some patients, it's more than a hospital. It's a home.
"We also have the chronic ventilator unit, the only one in the county ... these people cannot be taken off the ventilator," Jolepalem said. "There have been some patients who have been living for 20 years, 30 years in this hospital."
Final plans for cuts are still being determined, and no details were available Wednesday, Stroger spokesman Steve Mayberry said.
"(Health bureau chief Robert) Simon's going to continue his work," Mayberry said. "We're just one day after introduction of the budget."
Ashenhurst and union secretary Greg Kelley said the county board should consider a property tax increase or other ways to boost revenue before sharply cutting the budgets of Oak Forest Hospital and the county's health clinics in the Southland. Two of the three clinics in the area would close under Stroger's budget plan.
Jolepalem said Stroger should consider reducing administrative jobs before laying off doctors and nurses. Nurse Usha Patel said the county should improve the "work ethic" of some of its employees.
Patel earned the ire of county leaders in years past for being the county employee with the most overtime pay. She made $187,500 in overtime in 2004, according to news reports, on top of her $97,000 salary.
"Look at the absenteeism, that's not being looked at," Patel said Wednesday. "People need to come to work when they're supposed to come to work. That will get rid of the overtime."


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