Have Mercy: Governor and state lawmakers must work now to improve South Side hospital care

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Local officials, community activists and Mercy Hospital and Medical Center employees attend a protest outside Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Bronzeville Thursday morning, Sept. 3, 2020. They demanded Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to keep the hospital open, saying its closure will further increase the inequities in Black and Brown communities. The facility is set to close in 2021. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Local officials, community activists and Mercy Hospital and Medical Center employees attend a protest outside Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Bronzeville on Sept. 3. They demanded Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot keep the hospital open, saying its closure will further increase the inequities in Black and Brown communities. The facility is set to close in 2021. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers must revive and fund a Mercy Hospital merger plan — or seek an equal alternative.

Talk of closing Mercy Hospital next year couldn’t have come at worse time, with the city fighting a pandemic that acutely affects the South Side, a place where health care choices are already too few and far between.

But don’t heap all the blame on Mercy. Save some for the state legislators who — in a colossal blunder last spring — refused to help fund an effort led by Mercy to merge with three other aging, financially struggling South Side hospitals.

By pooling resources and getting state help, the proposed merger would have created the South Side’s first new hospital in decades along with a network of outpatient and preventative care clinics.

But without financial assistance from the state, the plan died.

Now this week, Mercy’s owner, Trinity Health, will ask the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board for permission to close sometime next year.

The hospital will also provide the board with details about a planned new care center.

Meanwhile, the three other cash-strapped hospitals — St. Bernard, South Shore and Advocate Trinity Hospital — remain vulnerable.

This is a wrong that must be corrected, even at this late hour. Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers must work now to either revive and fund the plan or seek an equal alternative.

Merger could’ve helped the South Side

Mercy first alerted state officials in late 2019 that it intended to close. But the city’s oldest hospital then held off shutting its doors while it worked toward the ultimately unsuccessful merger.

“I was hopeful that the transformation Mercy proposed earlier this year would be the beginning of a new era in health,” Trinity Health Vice President Jamie Dircksen said in a letter to the Illinois Health Facilities and Service Review Board in advance of this week’s meeting.

“I remain disappointed it did not come to fruition, but the desire to address outpatient care needs continue and that’s what Mercy is proposing in its plan for the future.”

For Mercy, the future means a new outpatient facility that it plans to open in September 2021 at 3753 S. Cottage Grove Ave. The center is expected to serve 65,000 patients yearly, treating mainly the uninsured and those on Medicare and Medicaid.

“In the case of Mercy Hospital’s patients, it is clear that what the community most needs is stronger access to outpatient and preventive care,” Dircksen said.

A major new clinic is better than nothing. But the benefits of the hospital merger would’ve been far greater.

To construct the new South Side health care network that would have been created under the merger, the four hospitals requested $520 million over five years in state funds earmarked for hospital improvement.

But for reasons that baffled us, state lawmakers — including some from the South Side — nixed the plan, claiming it lacked sufficient details and failed to convincingly lay out the merger’s benefits.

But there were enough details there for Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Theresa Eagleson to back the merger and argue in favor of its funding. So this was hardly some half-baked proposal. The plan also had the written support of community groups, South Side churches, organizations, the Chicago Urban League and the University of Chicago hospitals.

State Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago, one of the legislators against the merger, tells us now that he hopes some kind of solution regarding Mercy’s closing can be worked out.

He’s not sure what, though.

“I really don’t know what all the possibilities are,” he says. “COVID had made everything worse . . . I definitely don’t want to see Mercy close. It’s clear what the solution is. They’re trying to figure out a solution. You just hold out hope.”

Fixing this will not take hope, but action.

A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker wrote last week in an email to the Sun-Times: “The governor has communicated to Trinity President and CEO Michael Slubowski the state’s position that the hospital urgently rethink the decision to close Mercy Hospital; the state stands ready and willing to work with them to avoid closure.”

Time to fix a civic embarrassment

Excluding the University of Chicago’s medical center in Hyde Park, a relative handful of underfunded hospitals are struggling to serve an area of the city that is the size of the entire city of Detroit — and has a population as large as Seattle’s.

That’s a civic embarrassment, the effects of which are underscored by the pandemic.

Here’s an opportunity for the governor and concerned lawmakers to take the lead in correcting this grave wrong.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

Feeds,News,Chi ST 2

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December 13, 2020 at 06:19PM

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