Rare denial of Oak Forest Hospital closure hinged on 1 vote
Thursday, May 12, 2011
by Carla Johnson
Legal options are among those being analyzed by
Cook County officials after a state board’s rare and possibly
unprecedented vote to deny the closure of a hospital.
The vote was 4 to 1, but because five votes were
needed to approve the closure, the single “no” vote sank the county’s
request and gave an embattled charity hospital more time to serve
The vote caught county officials without a backup plan for keeping Oak Forest Hospital operating.
For months, they have transferred staff and wound
down services at the hospital. Now they are figuring out how to reverse
course enough to keep staffing levels safe for patients at a hospital
they had planned to close June 1.
“We have to make sure our staffing levels are up to
patient safety, and obviously that’s our No. 1 concern,” Cook County
Health and Hospitals System spokesman Lucio Guerrero said.
Even food service workers were given notice that
their jobs would be ending, Guerrero said, so now officials must make
sure patients will be fed.
County officials haven’t given up on their
cost-saving plan to convert the hospital into an outpatient clinic, and,
while there’s no legal strategy spelled out, going to court to fight
the state board’s intervention is an option, Guerrero said.
The county hoped to save $25 million to $40 million with the hospital’s closure. Current budgets are based on it.
The county is exploring everything “from legal
options to procedural options to operational options,” Guerrero said.
“We still think, within the confines of our budget, the right thing to
do is provide health care by doing this,” he said of the planned
conversion of the facility into a large regional outpatient care center.
Tuesday’s vote by the Illinois Health Facilities
and Services Review Board to deny the hospital closure was possibly
unique in the board’s history.
Courtney Avery, the panel’s administrator, said Wednesday she can’t remember the board ever voting down a hospital closure.
The denial hinged on one vote because of an absence
and three vacancies. The board should have nine voting members but has
three spots Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to fill.
“We are actively vetting candidates to fill
vacancies on the board,” Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson said
Wednesday, adding that’s been an ongoing priority, not linked to the
vote this week.
Five of six voting members showed up for Tuesday’s
meeting. That allowed one “no” vote — by consumer advocate Ronald Eaker,
of Urbana — to determine the outcome of Cook County’s request.
Eaker didn’t immediately return phone messages from
The Associated Press on Wednesday, but he explained his vote during the
meeting, mentioning his health experiences compelled him to work for
improved access to care. He said he saw nothing in Cook County’s
proposal “that will address helpful access to care for this community.”
Medical bills after a series of heart attacks
forced Eaker and his wife into bankruptcy because a doctors group
wouldn’t accept his insurance, according to a profile of Eaker published
in The News-Gazette newspaper in Champaign last year. The newspaper
article portrayed the Republican former minister as a champion for
patients. Eaker, now 63, was recommended by Champaign County Health Care
Consumers for the planning board appointment.
At Tuesday’s meeting, low-income patients, union
members and church leaders from the Southland showed up with signs and
testified to the board. But their political clout was puny compared with
the county’s, said Lynda DeLaforgue, co-director of Citizen Action
Illinois, which wants county officials to keep operating the south
“There was tremendous political pressure on that
board to close the hospital,” DeLaforgue said. “I don’t see how they
could not feel that political pressure.”
Hospital closures rarely come before the board.
More often, it deals with proposals to open hospitals, dialysis centers
and nursing homes. The goal is to avoid duplication of services that
could drive up the cost of health care.
It’s been difficult to find candidates who meet all
the legal requirements to serve on the volunteer board, said Thompson,
of the governor’s office.
Board members must be knowledgeable about health
care but can’t have a financial interest in or a business relationship
with a health care facility. Immediate family members can’t have
financial conflicts of interest. No more than five board members can be
from the same political party. And four must live outside the Chicago
“Finding people who meet all of those is challenging,” Thompson said. “We want to make sure we are doing exactly that.”