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General Assembly weighing action on Cook hospitals

Monday, February 15, 2010
ChicagoCurrent
by Alex Parker

A pair of bills sitting with the Illinois General Assembly aims to preempt the Cook County Board of Commissioners and make the board governing the county’s health system permanently independent.

Control of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System was wrested away from the County Board in exchange for a critical vote passing the sales tax hike. But the law authorizing the independent health board sunsets in 2011.

Some legislators are convinced keeping the health board independent is the way to go.

Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg , D-Evanston, proposes yanking state funding for the hospitals unless the board remains independent.

Reps. Suzanne Bassi, R-Palatine, and Elizabeth Coulson, R-Glenview, are floating a bill that would make the independent board permanent.

That bill, House Bill 4944, was referred to the House of Representatives’ Rules Committee in mid-January.

Senate Bill 3355, Schoenberg’s bill, was referred to the Senate’s Assignments Committee last week. It states that if the county board does not make the health board independent within 120 days of the bill passing, the state would deny funding to the health system.

As county leaders move forward to deal with the imminent drop in funding due to partial repeal of the sales tax, the question of how to fund the massive health system is taking center stage. Health board members are in the midst of reevaluating a strategic plan that could lead to a reduction in services. Final recommendations are expected in the spring.

Schoenberg says the state provided the county health system with $70 million last year. Tying the board's future with financial consequences shows the gravity of the situation, he says.

"My major concern is that when Stroger Hospital and the rest of the Cook County public health system is on shaky ground, that it has a ripple effect to the other safety net hospitals, which serve low-income adults and children who lack private health insurance," he says.

Whether or not the two bills are merged to create a bipartisan effort, Schoenberg says the Legislature is making it clear that the health board must remain intact.

"They're already on the right track with this independent board, but in order to achieve sustained reform, we need to make this board permanent," he says.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin says there will eventually be enough votes from the County Board to make the health board independent. But having support in Springfield is an added bonus.

“I think (state legislators) are motivated in good faith by the idea that this is working, and we don’t want to let it fall apart,” he says.

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, the Democratic nominee for County Board president, has pledged to make the health board independent. The Republican nominee, former state Sen. Roger Keats, says he wants to at least extend the health board’s term

A county board resolution to make the health board independent was referred to the Health and Hospitals Committee earlier this month. But the committee has yet to set a date to discuss the measure.


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