New law will make it easier for Westlake Hospital to reopen

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and state Rep. Kathleen Willis led the fight to stop Westlake from closing. They then vowed to enact legislation like this to help get the safety-net hospital reopened.

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Westlake Hospital, 1225 W Lake St in Melrose Park

Westlake Hospital, 1225 W Lake St. in Melrose Park

Many Ramos/Sun-Times file

Westlake Hospital, closed nearly two years ago, faces an easier path to reopening under legislation signed into law Tuesday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The law cuts the regulatory tape for a potential buyer to reopen the safety-net hospital. A health care provider will be exempted from having to receive a “certification of need.”

“Health care is a right, not a privilege and making sure people have equal access to quality health care is a top priority for this administration,” Pritzker said. “Reopening Westlake Hospital is a step toward addressing longstanding disparities in our health care system that have left some residents without the medical care they desperately need.”

A health care provider interested in reopening Westlake must commit to spending at least $20 million on any new construction, new equipment and buying the land and building. A prospective buyer will also continue a “charity care policy” that was in place at Westlake before it closed.

The hospital must also accept Medicaid and managed care organization patients. A buyer will also have to agree to own the hospital for at least five years after reopening.

A potential buyer has shown interest in the hospital, but little is known about the group, a Melrose Park spokesman said.

“The village of Melrose Park welcomes any new health care services that may be offered at Westlake Hospital,” Melrose Park Mayor RonSerpicosaid. “We look forward to details about the potential buyer’s plans which should become apparent soon. While we do not know specific plans at this point, we hope that emergency room services can be a part of their plan.”

Tenet Healthcare sold Westlake Hospital as part of a package deal to Pipeline Health and TWG Partners, a firm founded by Eric Whitaker, a friend of former President Barack Obama and a former director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. The $70 million deal also included Weiss Memorial Hospital, 4646 N. Marine Drive, and West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park.

The deal was finalized in January 2019, and within a month of acquiring the three hospitals, Pipeline announced plans to close Westlake despite promising state regulators it would keep the hospital open for at least two years.

The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board initially approved Westlake’s closure, but several legal battles from the village of Melrose Park delayed it. The closure sparked outrage from politicians and community groups.

At one point, Pritzker intervened by removing two members on the state review board in response to the original approval to close the hospital. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx also joined the fight to stop Westlake from closing.

Former employees of Westlake later filed a lawsuit against Pipeline alleging the former owners violated U.S. labor laws.

Westlake ultimately filed for bankruptcy, saying it was bleeding nearly $3 million a month, which provided a pathway to closure.

The hospital was temporarily reopened early in the pandemic to treat patients with COVID-19.

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and state Rep. Kathleen Willis led the fight to stop Westlake from closing. They then vowed to enact legislation to help the safety-net hospital reopen.

“After fighting more than a year to keep Westlake Hospital open, I thank Gov. Pritzker for swiftly signing SB 168 into law,” said Welch. “Because of our quick action, it’s now easier to sell and reopen Westlake Hospital since it meets criteria for serving underserved, low-income communities.”

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.

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