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Local health needs could be served by hospital merger

Thursday, July 19, 2007
Daily Southtown

THE ISSUE: Discussions are under way over a proposal to merge privately run Michael Reese Hospital and Cook County-operated Provident Hospital.

WE SAY: The idea is worth exploring. The county has struggled to justify keeping Provident open. And Michael Reese has faced economic troubles of its own. But a merger could ensure access to health care on the South Side.
The publicly owned Provident Hospital and privately owned Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center are in similar situations: They serve overlapping communities on the South Side, each is under-utilized and each has serious financial problems.
Robert Simon, interim director of the Cook County health bureau, revealed earlier this month that last spring he approached the CEO of Michael Reese to propose combining the two hospitals. Simon said Reese is "probably going to close" under the weight of its economic troubles, and that prompted him to raise the issue. Reese's 37-acre campus is desirable for other uses, and the hospital's landlord wants to sell the property. The campus would be a potential site for the Olympic Village that would be built on the South Side if Chicago wins the right to host the 2016 Olympics.
Dr. Simon said a merger was possible under which Michael Reese would move from its location just south of McCormick Place to Provident, three miles away at 500 E. 51st St.
County board President Todd Stroger said 45 percent of the space at Provident is not used. It has been the subject of closing rumors several times over the years, most recently during last winter's budget crisis.
True to form, Simon and Stroger disagreed over terminology and details. Simon talked about a "merger"; Stroger said it wouldn't be a merger because of difficulties involving union contracts. More likely, according to Stroger, would be an arrangement under which Reese would lease vacant space at Provident, and Reese would continue running as a separate hospital in the Provident building.
Simon told Southtown staff writer Jonathan Lipman such an arrangement would be unlikely to work. One potential problem with having two separate hospitals under the same roof: If a sick person walked in off the street, how would it be determined whose patient he was? Another: Who gets patients with insurance who are able to pay?
But Dr. Simon said that under a combined operation, Cook County would not have to contribute any more than its current $84 million budget to pay its share of the combined cost of the new, combined facilities.
Simon also cited a key benefit that might accrue from a combined operation. "Reese has a wonderful finance department," Simon told the Southtown. "Ours is inept.
"So maybe we should let them take over. But that's when you enter into the politics."
Stroger and his top staff for months have been grappling with finance department issues involving the health bureau. Many of them center on the county's inability to collect payments from patients at John Stroger Hospital or Provident, even those who have health insurance or can otherwise afford to pay something for their care.
If Reese's finance department truly is "wonderful," perhaps a merger could lead to an improved county system. And just as important, combining the two institutions would assure continued quality health care for several South Side neighborhoods.
Dr. Simon told Crain's, "I was very receptive (to the merger talks), because -- instead of shutting down Reese, you're possibly merging two hospitals. Then you take Provident Hospital, a tiny community hospital, and expand it into a major hospital."
That's a possibility worth exploring. Clearly, there are issues about turf that would have to be resolved, but we hope county officials recognize the potential and pursue serious talks with Reese management.

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