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Cook County To Close, Redevelop Old Oak Forest Hospital Campus

Friday, June 29, 2018
WBEZ Chicago Public Radio
by Kristen Schorsch

Cook County To Close, Redevelop Old Oak Forest Hospital Campus

It’s the end of an era for the century-old south suburban Oak Forest Hospital campus.

Cook County plans to close and redevelop the sprawling campus as it looks to cut costs and modernize health care services.

The former hospital is now an outpatient clinic that serves the poor and uninsured. And other county departments use the space, too.

Oak Forest is the largest of the county-owned health system’s campuses. There are 53 buildings spread across 153 acres. But over the years, the county has used less and less space, and it’s expensive to maintain.

The county-owned health system plans to relocate the clinic further east in early 2019, closer to where there’s more patient demand. Officials at the Cook County Health and Hospitals System have looked at about a dozen sites, said CEO Dr. Jay Shannon.

“We keep looking for that magic spot,” Shannon told WBEZ. “We haven’t been able to land one just yet.”

A spokeswoman for the health system estimates the move will save the systemabout $10 million a year. It’s not clear how much it might save Cook County overall, but the county otherwise estimates it would cost about $129 million over the next 20 years to repair and operate the campus as is.

A search is underway for a consultant who would help determine how to redevelop the campus. At least half a dozen applicants are interested, said county spokesman Frank Shuftan.

The site has a rich history. It began as a poor farm that provided food, shelter, and tuberculosis treatment. There’s an indigent cemetery on the grounds.

In a controversial move, the county converted the hospital to a clinic in 2011. County officials told state regulators then that there weren’t enough patients to operate a pricey hospital, and care was shifting nationwide to cheaper outpatient sites, like doctor’s offices and clinics.

It’s not clear when the hospital campus will close, what it will become, or how much it could cost developers to transform. The consultant who the county picks is supposed to come up with redevelopment options and find ways to generate money for the county. The campus overhaul will likely take several years, according to county documents.

“I hate to see them go,” said Oak Forest Mayor Hank Kuspa.

The former hospital was a huge economic engine for the region, employing hundreds of doctors, nurses and maintenance workers over the years. The health system has about 525 workers on campus now and doesn’t anticipate any layoffs when it closes.

Kuspa said he’d like to see restaurants and entertainment options, like a theater, on the site. After all, the campus near 159th Street and Cicero Avenue is across the street from the Oak Forest Metra station, a potential pool of shoppers and diners.

Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @kschorsch.

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