Westlake Hospital saved from closing, for now

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A Melrose Park hospital has been saved from closing, for now, thanks to a temporary restraining order issued by a Cook County Circuit Court judge Tuesday evening.

Services were suspended at Westlake Hospital Tuesday morning because of “concerns about its ability to continue maintaining a safe environment for patient care, due primarily to declining staff rates,” according to a statement issued from the hospital’s owner, Pipeline Health.

Pipeline also gave employees a 60-day notice of closure, as required by law.

But Judge Eve Reilly decided the sudden closure could have “irreparable harm” to the community and granted a temporary restraining order against Pipeline Health from shuttering the hospital until May 1 — the day after a hearing is scheduled before the state Health Facilities and Services Review Board to determine if Pipeline can shut down its operations in Melrose Park.

Pipeline declined to comment on the judge’s decision.

The sudden suspension of services drew the ire of U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill.; the hospital is in his 4th Congressional District. He condemned the decision in a statement saying the hospital was a “critical asset for Melrose Park.”

“I am pleased to hear that Judge Reilly has granted the temporary restraining order requiring Westlake Hospital to remain open until a state board reviews the owner’s application to close the facility,” Garcia said in a statement. “Now Pipeline Health must provide a detailed outline of how they plan to care for the patients they are serving. The crisis that Pipeline Health created at Westlake Hospital by directing nurses and other staff to find new jobs is a crisis of their own making.”

According to Pipeline, the hospital has been losing nearly $2 million a month.

Pipeline had announced its plans to close the facility in February; that was just weeks after it bought Westlake and two other Chicago-area hospitals. The facility, at 1225 W. Lake St., has operated in the near west suburb since 1927.

When the closing was announced, it had 800 employees. Since then, however, “hospital staffing rates have continued to fall at a concerning rate,” according to the Pipeline statement Tuesday morning.

“This temporary suspension is being done in the interest of patient safety and patient care,” Dennis Culloton, a Pipeline spokesperson said Tuesday morning. “In certain cases, medical staff are not reporting for duty. The staffing for critical roles in Westlake’s emergency room [and] intensive care has been covered by registered nurses from outside agencies who are unfamiliar with the hospital procedures.”

The remaining staff has been forced to work “unacceptably” long shifts to cover its staffing woes, Culloton said, but he couldn’t say for sure how many people Westlake employs at the moment.

On Tuesday, the hospital, licensed for 225 beds, had 73 inpatients.

State Rep. and Westlake Hospital trustee Emanuel “Chris” Welch doesn’t buy Pipeline’s claims and said Reilly’s decision was a victory for the community.

“Pipeline has lied and cheated their way through the whole process and today a judge saw through their ways,” Welch said Tuesday evening. “I’m just happy Judge Reilly entered the order and I do believe come April 30 the review board is going to also deny their application and we will be able to keep Westlake [Hospital] open as long as possible.”

Welch is also calling on Pipeline to sell the hospital if it doesn’t want to keep it open.

Welch and other state lawmakers, who have objected to the closing, are also backing a bill in the Illinois House of Representatives. H.B. 0123 would give the governor the power to reverse any decision by the Health Facilities and Services Review Board on a hospital closing. It also would suspend any application to close a hospital until pending lawsuits over the closing are resolved. The village of Melrose Park has sued over the closure; Pipeline has filed a motion seeking to have that lawsuit dismissed.

State representatives will vote on the bill Wednesday and, if approved, it will then head to the Illinois Senate.

When the closing was announced, no timeline was offered. Melrose Park officials at the time denounced the move in a news release.

“Less than one month after Pipeline promised to keep Westlake open and vocalized the hospital’s tremendous importance as one of the only safety net hospitals in our region, they have announced that they are closing the doors,” Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico said in the statement.

Tenet Healthcare sold its last three Chicago-area hospitals in January to Pipeline Health and TWG Partners,a health care investment firm founded by Eric Whitaker in 2011.

Whitaker, a close friend of former President Barack Obama, served as director of Illinois Department of Public Health and executive vice president and associate dean at the University of Chicago Medicine.

“[T]he entire time we have been led to believe that they were going to invest in Westlake, not close it,” Welch said in the statement when the closing was announced.

“Tenant, Pipeline Health and Whitaker deceived the State of Illinois, the Village of Melrose Park and surrounding community members,” Welch said. “I will oppose this measure for the sake of our community. I will ask my fellow legislators to stand with me in opposition as well.”

Tenet CEO Ron Rittenmeyer said at the time that Tenet was “pleased” to sell and was confident the hospitals would have a “bright future.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

Contributing: David Struett

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