In battle over Presence Health subsidy, backers say other side using NRA tactics

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Presence Health operates 11 hospitals, including Resurrection. | File photo

The controversy over whether to give Illinois’ largest Catholic health system a $5.5 million city subsidy — or deny it because of the hospital’s anti-abortion policy — got down and dirty Tuesday on the eve of a City Council vote.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader accused opponents of the Presence Health subsidy of “acting like” the National Rifle Association.

“The NRA won’t allow any legislation that relates to gun control whatsoever. And there’s a lot of common-sense things out there that the average person could agree to,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th).

“You’re talking about health care in under-served areas. You’re talking about health care for people of color. You’re talking about health care in an area where…the mortality rates among women of color for delivering babies is significantly higher than for those who are not black or brown. We can’t have that all-or-nothing type of discussion that they have on a gun-control level when you’re talking about health care.”

The mayor’s office upped the ante — by questioning why there was mounting opposition to the $5.5 million tax-increment-financing (TIF) subsidy promised years ago to Presence Health when the City Council unanimously approved a $4.6 million subsidy to Swedish Covenant Hospital in Lincoln Square in 2014.

The money was used to upgrade Swedish Covenant’s Lincoln Square emergency room and to build a women’s health center at the hospital’s Far North Side pavilion.

The Presence Health subsidy was promised years ago to convince the health care giant to bring its headquarters to 200 S. Wacker. In return, the company agreed to bring four community care centers to underserved Chicago neighborhoods.

Abortion and birth control are political hot-buttons. The last thing Emanuel wants as he prepares to campaign for a third term is to have progressive women angry at him for providing a lucrative subsidy to a hospital that follows the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

That’s apparently why there was such a highly-orchestrated pushback by the mayor’s office.

Swedish Covenant Hospital also received tax-increment financing funds. | Sun-Times Media

Swedish Covenant Hospital also received tax-increment financing funds. | Sun-Times Media

“Like Presence, Swedish Covenant does not perform elective abortions. Why are there two standards here? One for the North Side and one for the rest of the city?” a top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote in an email.

Northwest Side Ald. John Arena (45th) was asked why he supported the Swedish Covenant subsidy, but opposes the subsidy for Presence Health.

“There’s no different standard. If that was an issue that I was aware of at the time, I would have voted against it then,” Arena said.

Arena said he’s not about to be branded as a hypocrite by Rahm Emanuel’s minions.

“He is either hypocritical and supportive of women’s rights to birth control and access to full-body health care or he’s not,” Arena said.

“If he wants to call me a hypocrite, I call him one. Either stand with us and oppose this and get right with TIFs or be a hypocrite when it comes down to women’s health care.”

Emanuel’s communications director Adam Collins said the mayor has a “sterling record when it comes to reproductive rights” — and it won’t be diminished by delivering the $5.5 million subsidy.

“Presence Health is the largest provider of Medicaid in the city of Chicago, At a time when diabetes and heart disease are growing problems in many of our communities, it is crucial that we expand access to those very health services in those same communities,” Collins wrote in an email.

“Someone’s zip code should not dictate the health care service available to them, and this project will ensure that residents in Calumet Heights, Belmont-Cragin, Avondale and West Town can receive the quality care they deserve.”

Colleen Connell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, argued that the 2014 vote on the Swedish Covenant subsidy is irrelevant.

“The important thing is to focus on the here and the now and the fact that the City Council has an opportunity to actually make good on its commitment to women’s health care and full access to both information and health care,” Connell said, prior to a City Hall news conference aimed at pressuring aldermen to reject the Presence Health subsidy.

“The fact that mistakes may have been made in the past … does not mean the city should continue to make the same mistakes and provide TIF funding to expand health care organizations like Presence [that] are not providing women with adequate information or options with respect to miscarriage management, abortion and birth control.”

According to its website, Swedish Covenant does not perform elective abortions. But, unlike Presence Health, Swedish Covenant “does not operate under the more restrictive Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” impacting contraception, sterilization and treatment for infertility and miscarriages.

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