Two charity hospitals in Illinois face drastically different fates after a state board on Tuesday approved the closure of the only hospital in East St. Louis and denied a Cook County proposal to close a hospital in Chicago's southern suburbs.
The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board denied a plan by Cook County to close Oak Forest Hospital, a move that triggered a celebration from those against closing the charity care hospital and disappointment from the county board president who was hoping shuttering the facility would help reduce crushing health care costs.
Meanwhile, officials predicted it would take three to four months to close Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital in East St. Louis and open an urgent care center nearby. The Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation plans to move some of the psychiatric beds from Kenneth Hall to a sister hospital in neighboring Centreville.
"Unfortunately the financial strain of continuing to maintain services on that campus is not a loss we can sustain any longer," Larry McCulley, foundation CEO, told the board before the vote.
The East St. Louis hospital in recent years had been reduced to 39 mental health beds and an emergency room that no longer accepted trauma patients. It has been losing $5 million a year.
There were no protesters present at the state board vote, which McCulley credited to his foundation working with the city of East St. Louis.
Emotions have run high around the country as safety net hospitals have closed in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New York in recent years, and many others are on the brink of failure because of looming budget cuts. Those emotions were on display in Joliet where dozens of protesters, some holding large photos of Oak Forest patients would have been forced into nursing homes if the hospital closed, erupted in cheers at news that the hospital would remain open.
The vote came after the board's staff concluded in a report released last month that the proposed closure could make it tougher for the uninsured to find health care and the need for intensive care beds and nursing home beds would increase should the hospital close.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle refused to say whether the county would file a lawsuit or pursue legislation to exempt the county from the board's authority.
The county, with its health care system that provides $500 million annually in free care and serves more than 800,000 patients, has been struggling with rising medical costs, diminishing federal help, dependence on Illinois' Medicaid system and patients who can't pay their bills.
Lynda DeLaforgue, co-director of Citizen Action Illinois, said the vote will give Cook County officials a chance to re-evaluate its strategic plan for health care and keep operating the south suburban hospital, which was scheduled to close and be converted to an outpatient center on June 1.
The denial came because of one dramatic "no" vote. Five votes were needed to approve and there were only five board members present. Voting no was Ronald Eaker, a health care consumer advocate from Urbana. The rest of the board voted in favor.
"I'd like to preface my vote by saying that I appreciate the positions of both sides," Eaker said. "It is a nutshell of what's wrong with health care in America." Eaker said he saw nothing in Cook County's proposal "that will address helpful access to care for this community. I vote no."
With the county looking for ways to shift resources from costly inpatient hospital services to more primary and specialty care, officials have said converting the facility to a large outpatient center made economic sense. They have pointed out that most of the patients who come to the emergency room there do not have real emergencies, but are patients in need of primary care for chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes.
After the board's vote, Preckwinkle, who testified at the meeting that the hospital should be closed, said the county would consider all options, but would not elaborate. Dr. Terry Mason, the interim CEO of the county's health system, said he is disappointed in the decision. He said that the county will "follow the law."