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American Medical Association, hospitals to spend $6M to close ‘life expectancy gap’ on West Side

The money, distributed by West Side United, will provide low-interest loans to businesses and community groups involved in economic development projects. Some will fund health care efforts and quality-of-life improvements.

Austin Town Hall, next to the CTA Green Line station at Central Avenue.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot was at Austin Town Hall on Chicago’s West Side on Wednesday to announce an initiative to increase life expectancy in the area.
John O’Neill/Sun-Times file

The average life expectancy gap between black and white Chicagoans is a daunting nine years. But the so-called “death gap” between people who live downtown compared to parts of the West Side is an even more astounding 16 years.

On Wednesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s push to narrow the gap and rebuild West Side neighborhoods neglected since the 1968 riots got a giant boost.

West Side hospitals and the Chicago-based American Medical Association agreed to contribute $6 million — nearly twice their prior commitment — to community and health improvements on the West Side.

The money, to be distributed by West Side United, will provide low-interest loans to neighborhood businesses and community organizations involved in economic development projects. Some of it will bankroll health care initiatives and quality-of-life improvements.

“Our city has spent literally billions of dollars — probably tens of billions of dollars — on the West Side alone in policing. Think about if we took even a fraction of that money and we spent it on more productive things to really focus on meeting our neighbors’ daily needs. That’s what today is about,” Lightfoot told a news conference at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake.

Lightfoot said she “means what she says” about reversing the city’s history of “not investing” in the West and South Sides.

That’s why she’s targeting 10 inner-city neighborhoods for an unprecedented $250 million city investment and $500 million more from other government agencies.

“In order for this initiative to take root and to thrive, we’ve got to look — not just at the commercial strips, but the surrounding neighborhood areas and make sure that the investments there are also up to the challenge of building safe, healthy, vibrant communities. That’s what makes this investment by the AMA so important,” she said.

“There are too many places on the West Side in particular that look like the embers from 1968 have just cooled. We have to reverse that and investments like this are an important step in that direction.”

The AMA is the newest member of West Side United, founded in 2017 and dedicated to making the West Side healthier and more vibrant. Members include Rush University Medical Center, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, AMITA Health, Cook County Health, Sinai Health System, the University of Illinois Hospital & Health System, the Illinois Medical District and Northern Trust.

Their strategic plan to confront “health care disparities” and close the life-expectancy gap is “really the framing for revitalizing the West Side” and a “model that we could use in other areas of the city,” the mayor said.

Dr. James L. Madara, the AMA’s CEO and executive vice president, said the “underlying inequities that prevent far too many West Side families from reaching optimal health” is personal to the doctors’ organization, headquartered in Chicago since 1888.

The goal of the $6 million is to reduce the life expectancy gap by 50 percent by 2030 in 10 West Side neighborhoods, including Austin, East and West Garfield Park, and North and South Lawndale.

“We recognize the tremendous barriers that have been placed in front of families on Chicago’s West Side and elsewhere — barriers that have produced inequities that contribute to an alarming gap in life expectancy in neighborhoods just a short distance one from the other,” Madara said.

By investing $2 million over the next two years in West Side United’s “social impact collaborative,” the AMA hopes to “change the health outlook for thousands of children and families,” Madara said.

Lightfoot argued $6 million is a “significant commitment to the West Side” that can go a long way, yielding not only a “significant” return on investment, but also spurring other investments like it.

“When we announced the launch of Invest South/West last October, we started with one additional partner. That was BMO Harris at $10 million. Then, we got $10 million from Starbucks. Then, we got $20 million from Fifth Third [Bank]. And now, we got this $6 million that AMA is doing,” the mayor said.

“Success breeds success. When you see a community is standing up, you’ve got great stakeholders who are committed to making sure the success of a community turns around, people take notice. My expectation is that this $6 million certainly will go a long way in helping those that will be the recipients, but will also spur and attract other investment.”