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County tax cut could close hospitals, clinics

Thursday, May 07, 2009
Chi-Town Daily News
by Alex Parker

Provident Hospital, Oak Forest Hospital and 16 county health clinics could close if if the Cook County Commission's repeal of a one-percent sales tax hike holds, officials say. 

County commissioners yesterday were grappling with the effects that such a change would create.

"Oh my Lord," Commissioner Earlean Collins exclaimed at a finance committee meeting yesterday, upon hearing about possible hospital closures.

The impact on other hospitals in Cook County would be catastrophic, says Stroger spokesman Eugene Mullins.

"That would have a monumental effect on the health care agencies throughout the state," Mullins says. "University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Illinois Masonic will see an influx of people."

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger is considering a veto the tax cut. If commissioners override the veto, that would mean a bleak prognosis for the hospital system.

Stroger told commissioners Tuesday the tax cut would create a $300 million budget shortfall, requiring a 25 percent budget cut.

Commissioner John Daley, chair of the finance committee, says it's not clear the cutbacks would require hospital closures.

"I think that's a maybe," he said.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who voted in favor of the tax hike repeal, downplayed the threat, noting health system board members had yet to discuss it.

He says both hospitals have seen better days, with Oak Forest evolving from being a long term care facility and Provident treating a fraction of its capacity. Provident also has several health clinics.

"What we really need to be providing is primary care in those areas," says Suffredin, who voted for the tax hike last year, in exchange for making the health system's board independent of the county board.

While Provident could operate in part as an ambulatory clinic, Suffredin says more clinics with modern equipment and competent staff are needed throughout the county.

Suffredin ultimately wants to see more clinics that feed patients to Stroger Hospital, "so we are the primary care physician for the people who live in those neighborhoods," he says.

It is unclear if Stroger will veto the measure, which passed 12-3, Mullins says.

But, "If he decides to veto it, then yes, it would save the health care system."

Commissioner Jerry Butler, who sits on the health system's board of directors said the subject had not been brought up yet by board members.

Health system spokesman Marcel Bright declined to comment on the possibility of the hospitals closing.

"We're not going to speculate on anything at this point," he said.

A spokeswoman for Provident referred questions to Stroger's office. Representatives at Oak Forest did not respond to requests for comment.

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.

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