D.O.A. proposal for South Side hospital merger deserves second chance

Our take: Revive the merger plan and a legislative measure for state government funding.

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Mercy Hospital & Medical Center is one of four hospitals that have proposed a merger to improve health care services on Chicago’s South Side.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A proposal to improve South Side health care by merging four financially struggling hospitals flatlined last week during the state Legislature’s spring session.

We believe the hospital plan is too critical to let die.

The merger would have put Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, St. Bernard, South Shore and Advocate Trinity Hospital under one ownership group and resulted in the construction of at least one new combined facility.

The move would have replaced four aging hospitals with a better one, plus a network of smaller facilities around the South Side.

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To make that happen, the four hospitals sought $520 million in state funding over five years. But lawmakers excluded the merger from a health and hospital funding bill approved in Springfield, claiming the proposal lacked sufficient details and failed to convincingly lay out its benefits.

“This development by the Legislature forces the conclusion of our transformation plans,” a spokesperson for the hospitals told us.

This is bad news for the South Side, which has suffered from an under-resourced and overburdened health care network for decades — a fact underscored by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has delivered a particularly lethal blow to predominantly African American neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

We strongly urge the hospital executives, lawmakers and state health officials to get back to the table and revive the merger proposal.

Call a special session of the Legislature if necessary; there is other unfinished legislative business as well.

Approve the necessary funding to make this consolidation and upgrade of South Side hospitals happen.

The need is just that great.

“We all understand that change is hard, but I also believe that we can’t let desire for something perfect stand in the way of progress for so many.”

A new health care network

The merger would have created a new hospital plus a new network of ambulatory care centers. The hospitals would provide traditional care while the centers would offer more immediately accessible resources to help people avoid or manage chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, health problems that are a particular scourge among African Americans.

If the funding request had been approved, the hospital group would have received $110 million in fiscal year 2021, and an additional $410 million over the next five years. The cash would have been used to offset the cost of setting up the new system. An additional $1.1 billion was to be raised through borrowing, donations and private funding.

“Our sense was that lawmakers would support the plan [because] the need is clear,” the hospital spokesperson told us. “We’ve been encouraged by leaders across the state and cityto propose a bold solutionto thepersistent challengesSouth Side residents face, and received significant support from stakeholders throughout this process.”

But state Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago, says the proposal struck many lawmakers as incomplete. The hospital group, he said, couldn’t tell them which of the existing four hospitals would close, for instance, or where the new medical facility would be located.

“We didn’t have a sense of what it was doing,” Evans, a cancer survivor whose district covers parts of the South Side and some southern suburbs, told us. “So I had concerns about voting for that large amount of money. Nobody opposes — I didn’t oppose what their plan is ... we didn’t have a sense of what it was.”

For its part, the hospital group had been discussing the plan with state and local elected officials, as well as with community groups, since last fall. And they garnered letters of support from South Side churches and organizations, including the Chicago Urban League and the University of Chicago hospitals.

And while some legislators wanted additional details, Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Theresa Eagleson had a clear enough picture to back the merger and the state funding. She argued against the omission of the plan before the House executive committee.

“We all understand that change is hard, but I also believe that we can’t let desire for something perfect stand in the way of progress for so many,” she said.

Revive the plan

“Today, the South Side of Chicago suffers among the worst economic, health, social and violence disparities in United States,” a 2019 study by University of Chicago Medicine concluded. The South Side suffers from “significantly higher rates of chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, breast cancers STIs and HIV.”

Throw in violence, trauma and the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s even clearer that the collection of hospitals — even with the world-class UCMedicine hospital campus on the South Side also in the mix — is not enough to serve the medical needs of what is essentially a city within a city — some 700,000 people.

And Eagleson’s testimony indicated that Mercy Hospital, one of the hospitals in the proposed merger, informed her last fall that it wanted to shut down, possibly at the end of 2019.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but the message is clear that without some sort of intervention, the four aging South Side hospitals are likely to dry up one by one — with nothing to replace them.

Evans, the state representative, tells us he and his fellow lawmakers wouldn’t object to reconsidering the merger plan if improvements were made.

“There was trepidation, not opposition,” he said.

The hospitals, legislators and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s health care team must now get together and hammer out an improved plan that answers all questions — and improves its chances for state funding.

Get it done for the sake of better health care on Chicago’s underserved South Side.

Send letters toletters@suntimes.com.

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