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Blue Island mayor criticized for ‘backroom deal’ in favor of closing MetroSouth Hospital

Domingo Vargas made a last-minute deal to support closing MetroSouth Medical Center that promised the city $2 million.

Blue Island Mayor Domingo Vargas
Blue Island Mayor Domingo Vargas faced criticism for accepting a “backroom deal” from a health care company.
Sun-Times file photo

Blue Island Mayor Domingo Vargas was on the side of MetroSouth Medical Center employees in early September, denouncing the looming closure of the hospital that has served his area for more than a century.

He vowed he wouldn’t allow the hospital to “die” and promised the cheering crowd that “corporate America” would never forget the people who fought to keep the hospital open.

Two weeks later Vargas changed his tune in front of a state review board. The fight he promised turned into a retreat when he asked the board to approve the closure of MetroSouth.

Blue Island aldermen and others trying to keep the hospital open were stunned and left wondering what caused the sudden change.

Vargas told the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board at its meeting Sept. 17 that an agreement between the city and hospital owner Quorum Health, signed the same day as the meeting, was made to “protect the interests of the community and create a win-win from the otherwise unfortunate situation.”

Ultimately, the review board delayed the vote, forcing MetroSouth to stay open because of a recent lawsuit filed against Quorum.

The next day aldermen learned Vargas had agreed to support MetroSouth’s closing in exchange for a $2 million payment to Blue Island if the state board had approved the closure. Vargas signed the agreement pending city council approval.

Vargas said Friday he intended to show council members the agreement the day before the state review board meeting, but the council meeting was canceled.

“They strategically wanted to doom any proposal,” Vargas said of the council members. “My decision was based on legal advice that I received and was for the best interest of this community.”

Vargas said the $2 million would have been used for training and new equipment. The amount was based on how much property tax MetroSouth paid Blue Island.

The two-page agreement, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, required Vargas to present Quorum in a “positive” light at the state review board meeting and withdraw the city’s request to delay the closure.

Amanda Anderson, a Quorum spokeswoman, said the $2 million was a “transition fee paid to the city to address any short-term costs” before identifying a new owner.

Vargas positioning the city in favor of closing MetroSouth without first talking to council members has created a rift.

“I find it troubling when everyone is working from the state level to our local one to keep the hospital open, which is our economic engine, and he just signs this horrible deal on behalf of everyone,” Blue Island Ald. Kevin Donahue (3rd) said.

MetroSouth is the largest employer in Blue Island, with over 800 workers as of earlier this year.

“We didn’t see the agreement until a day after it was signed,” Ald. Fred Bilotto (2nd) said. “This agreement came as a surprise to most of our colleagues on the council. We’ve all been working hard to save this hospital.”

Bilotto said the terms of the agreement were vague and sometimes possibly wrong like the plan to suspend the hospital’s license.

Vargas told the board Quorum would seek a temporary suspension of MetroSouth’s state license instead of terminating it to give Blue Island time to find another company to run the hospital.

But state regulators have said temporary suspensions are limited to “unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances.” Quorum has been working to close MetroSouth for months.

Vargas said he hoped the state review board would “see the light” and “touch their hearts” to approve the license suspension.

MetroSouth Medical Center in south suburban Blue Island has been purchased by Lockwood Development Partners
MetroSouth Medical Center
Sun-Times file

Under the agreement, if a buyer wasn’t found before April 1, 2020, Quorum could have transferred the real estate to the city along with an additional $3 million payment to “offset future operating costs.” Quorum, however, reserved the right to keep any medical equipment for its other hospitals or for liquidation.

Donahue, chairman of the city’s finance committee, said there would be no way Blue Island could maintain and invest in the hospital.

Donahue said he was a longtime supporter of the mayor and campaigned for Vargas’ reelection but has turned into one of his strongest critics in the past year.

“This guy has been acting rogue and cutting deals that aren’t in the best interest of the city,” Donahue said. “It is concerning that on the eleventh hour he is trying to cut a backroom deal that benefits only Quorum.”

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