Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle vowed Thursday to protect Provident Hospital, calling the Washington Park hospital a crucial part of Cook County’s safety net.
Preckwinkle’s 2021 $3.4 million spending plan for the Cook County Health and Hospitals System includes a plan to spend $312 million to care for the county’s poorest residents who do not have private health insurance.
In all, Preckwinkle’s $6.9 billion spending plan for Cook County in 2021 will close a $410 million budget gap without raising taxes.
Preckwinkle’s budget covers the shortfall — the largest in a decade — by taking $76.8 million from the county’s reserve funds, eliminating 659 vacant positions and using $50 million remaining from the relief package approved by the federal government in March.
More than 300 of those eliminated positions are in the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, which needs fewer deputies at the Cook County Jail, where the population has dropped 44% since 2017 as part of efforts to reform the county’s criminal justice system.
“The elimination of these positions are significant, but we understand these cuts are necessary and that all county agencies are facing similar hardships,” Sheriff Tom Dart said in a statement.
Preckwinkle’s plan makes structural changes to the way the Cook County Health and Hospital System operates to close a $187 million gap, and calls for as many as 130 layoffs. The final number of job losses could be cut in half by retirements and voluntary departures, said Cook County Health Interim Chief Business Officer Andrea Gibson.
In addition, Preckwinkle plans to consolidate two clinics in Woodlawn and South Shore into Provident Hospital and change the hospital’s emergency room from a full-service facility to a stand-by emergency department to shift the focus to outpatient services.
“We are strengthening Provident Hospital,” Preckwinkle said. “It is here to stay. Period.”
However, Preckwinkle’s proposal, which must be approved by the Cook County Board of Commissioners by Nov. 30, drew pushback from several labor organizations.
"As a union, we strongly oppose these cuts not only to prevent the loss of our members’ jobs but to prevent the devastating impact it will have on the residents of the South Side of Chicago,” said Debra Simmons-Peterson, the president of Teamsters Local 743. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not the time to remove these crucial jobs and critical health care resources from the people who are most vulnerable and most at risk.”
However, Preckwinkle said the closures of the clinics were designed not to save money but to “improve services” for South Side residents.
“Every single patient at those clinics will be able to keep their same doctor, access the same services they receive now, just at a new location that many already travel to: Provident Hospital,” Preckwinkle said.
Preckwinkle’s vision for Provident Hospital calls for it to serve as a “new lifestyle center” designed to help patients manage chronic diseases, many of which afflict Black county residents disproportionately.
In addition, despite the economic catastrophe caused by the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a $200 million redevelopment of Provident Hospital will proceed, Preckwinkle said.
County officials expect its Medicaid service, known as CountyCare, to serve a growing number of patients in 2021, continuing a trend that began in the months after the recession caused by the pandemic resulted in job cuts and the loss of private health insurance for thousands of Chicagoans.
The solvency of County Care is tied to the fate of the Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge brought by Republican state officials in November against the law, better known as Obamacare.
“I will not mince words here: This pandemic has dealt Cook County and its residents a catastrophic blow,” Preckwinkle said. “Cook County cannot — cannot — absorb another financial calamity in 2021.”