What Killed a Plan to Transform Health Care on the South Side

South Shore Hospital CEO Tim Caveney said he and leaders of the three other hospitals – Advocate Trinity, St. Bernard’s and Mercy — planning to merge into a new health care system for Chicago’s South Side had been clear with Illinois lawmakers: They would need a billion dollars a year for the next decade in order to go forward with the project.

“It’s for the benefit of the people on the South Side of Chicago, that’s who we’re doing this for,” Caveney said.

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Instead of going forward with a joint venture, they issued a joint letter.

“We have determined that we see no path forward for our project,” it reads.

The legislature adjourned after its abbreviated special session last week without approving a mechanism to fund the endeavor.

The General Assembly did approve a $3.9 billion hospital assessment program that enables the state to receive federal matching funds that go back to hospitals that serve many Medicaid patients.

The plan also sets aside $150 million a year to be used to help hospitals to “transform.”

But at the last minute, the legislature was unable to reach an agreement on how exactly the program will work.

Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago, said there was confusion and a lack of clarity, and he felt like it was irresponsible to vote for such an important program with so many unknowns.

“Anything with hospitals, and live-saving things, there should be total clarity. Everybody should completely understand the intentionality’s going to match the results, and yield something great of the community,” he said. “I think that will still happen. But there was some confusion around that.”

In a “crazy,” condensed session, he said there wasn’t the time to clear up those questions.

Evans, a cancer survivor, said he knows firsthand the importance of having a quality health care facility nearby. It can be a matter of life and death, he said. Plus, hospitals can spur economic development within a community.

He said he’s hopeful a program will pass, perhaps when the legislature returns in the fall.

Others, however, say parochial politics were at play, and worry that by the time Illinois passes a law setting parameters for the hospital transformation program, it will be too late.

Last year – even before the COVID-19 crisis temporarily hurt hospitals’ bottom lines by forcing them to spend additional funding on personal protective equipment even as they had to halt outpatient surgeries – the four hospitals that were part of the merger were collectively losing nearly $80 million a year.

Their plan called for building one new larger hospital while also opening a handful of new health centers where physicians could take on patients with urgent or preventative care needs.

It would “revolutionize care access and delivery for a very vulnerable population,” the hospitals’ joint letter reads.

Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance Jitu Brown said it’s “disgraceful” that the “starved” South Side hospitals are in a situation like this in the first place.

“Hospitals in the black community have been suffering from underfunding for decades,” he said. “I don’t critique them. They’re trying to make the best out of a bad situation. I critique a government that puts us in that position.”

Asked about it on Wednesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said crosscurrents are at play as the health care system evolves: changes from the Affordable Care Act, updates in medicine that mean hospitals are performing outpatient procedures, “and along comes COVID-19,” another disruptor.

Pritzker said he’s “hopeful we can get to hospital transformation” but he said that with revenues down due to COVID-19, there wasn’t money in the budget to allocate $100 million to this particular project.

It’s not just the South Side hospitals that are looking to the state for money to help with upgrades.

However, in the meantime, the CEOs of Advocate Trinity, St. Bernard’s, Mercy and South Shore wrote that, “without transformation, there is no path to financial stability for hospitals on the South Side, leading to a day when we have more closures and – more importantly, health care deserts — for residents on the South Side.”

They wrote that it is a “profound disappointment” that last-minute machinations in the General Assem

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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