New initiative seeks to transform health care on the South Side

University of Chicago, Advocate Trinity, St. Bernard hospitals are leading an effort to create a new treatment model for underserved areas.

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“We have to transform health care delivery,” said the Rev. Julian DeShazier, senior pastor at University Church in Hyde Park.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Medical, community and religious leaders on the South Side are racing to build a new health care model to address chronic illness, poor access to treatment and a pandemic that is disproportionately hitting Black and Latino neighborhoods.

The coalition will seek millions of dollars in state money to fund what’s being called the South Side Health Transformation Project, an initiative led by University of Chicago, Advocate Trinity and St. Bernard hospitals to address the decades-old problem of an overwhelmed medical care system that’s been exasperated even more by COVID-19.

“Looking at the impact COVID has ravaged on our community, it spotlighted a lot of things we’ve known all over the years,” said Rashard Johnson, president of Advocate Trinity Hospital.

The three hospitals, working with community leaders, propose a system alongside area health clinics and social service organizations to build a preventative care network that would better utilize technology and create a group of community health workers to help guide patients, many of whom have chronic health conditions, toward the best treatment options. The plan also calls for hiring primary and specialty doctors and creates a shared database for patient records. The South Side has long had a large proportion of residents suffering from diabetes, asthma, heart conditions and other health issues, the plan’s advocates say.

The initiative faces a critical timeline as one of the area’s go-to providers for charitable care, Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, is set to close in February. In May, a proposed four-way merger between Mercy, Trinity, St. Bernard and South Shore Hospital was called off because the money-losing institutions failed to get $520 million in state funding to set up a new health care system. The merger proposed to improve health care options on the predominantly Black South Side.

Next month, proponents of the newly developed South Side project hope to land funding when the General Assembly reconvenes during the veto session. Hospital executives say they’ll seek a portion of $150 million in state funding available to needy hospitals. In addition, the three hospitals say they will kick in money and will seek private donations. 

“Even though the consolidation discussions ended, the issues didn’t go away — in fact were compounded by the COVID pandemic,” said Charles Holland, chief executive of St. Bernard Hospital.

Lawmakers plan to distribute the $150 million to hospitals that have been hard-hit by the pandemic and “the sooner the better,” said House Majority Leader Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat. 

While there will be competition for the money, Harris said he’s aware of the challenges on the South Side.

“COVID has been devastating for hospitals and a lot of health care providers and it has shown how many disproportionate impacts it has on communities,” Harris said.

The Center for Care and Discovery at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

The Center for Care and Discovery at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Photography by Michael Satalic

Joining the hospitals in the push are community leaders such as the Rev. Julian DeShazier, senior pastor at University Church in Hyde Park.

“We have to transform health care delivery,” said DeShazier, who advises the University of Chicago on community health matters and advocated for the hospital’s trauma center that opened in 2018. “It doesn’t mean we transform one of these systems. We have to make changes across the board.”

Those changes are based on recent community input, he said. One of the major problems: South Siders often use the emergency room as their primary source of care because of a local health system that’s stretched thin, he said. 

“I’ve seen people even in my own family and, certainly in the congregation where I serve, not have the same access to the quality of care as those downtown,” DeShazier said. 

Social service organizations like New Horizon in Bronzeville would also take part in the new South Side model, said chief executive Christa Hamilton. 

Hamilton’s organization and others would help direct residents toward preventative care, aiming to cut down on emergency room visits, which tax the overall system, she said. 

“This is not something that any one organization can do alone or should do alone,” said Brenda Battle, vice president of the Urban Health Initiative at the University of Chicago. “In order to effectively support the needs of our community is something that we needed to do together.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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