Preckwinkle says push for ‘enhanced collaboration’ at county health system no power grab

Preckwinkle alluded to a greater need for “communication, accountability and transparency” six times in her Thursday news conference.

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. File Photo.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle presides over a board meeting of the Cook County Forrest Preserve at the County Building, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says her move to seek more authority in the decisions at Cook County Health is about improving “communication, accountability and transparency” at the system, not about grabbing power.

She alluded to a greater need for “communication, accountability and transparency” six times in her Thursday news conference and said the decision to make changes now comes in light of the transition period created by the ouster of former health system CEO Dr. John Jay Shannon.

“When the board decided not to renew Dr. Shannon’s contract we looked frankly at everything that was going on at the system, and the conclusion was that the board and the president needed to be more involved again in terms of communication, accountability and transparency,” Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle pointed to budgetary challenges, as well as severance packages for about 54 people at the health system — she said she wasn’t aware of the “generous severance packages” — and a need for greater transparency in “the decision-making process,” as reasons to bring the health system more in line with the County Board.

The Hyde Park Democrat’s proposed plan was sent to commissioners in a letter dated Tuesday, giving her a representative on the health system’s governing board and granting county commissioner more power over the top health official. 

Preckwinkle called for “enhanced collaboration” with the independent board that now runs the Cook County Health System, proposing amendments to the underlying ordinance that would allow Preckwinkle to directly appoint a member to the governing board, make the next CEO of the system subject to the “advice and consent of the County Board” and require the system to submit a balanced preliminary budget to commissioners.

She also proposed the County Board get to review and approve the “salary, termination, term, severance and any contract bonus provisions” for the next CEO.

The county’s health system is a $2.8 billion operation that oversees Stroger and Provident hospitals as well as health care at Cook County Jail and other county sites. The health system also conducts a managed-care program called CountyCare.

County commissioners sent the amendment that would create the changes to the Health and Hospitals Committee on Thursday. Another ordinance, addressing severance issues within the health system, was also sent to that committee.

The sweeping proposed changes, first reported by WBEZ, come less than two months after Shannon was pushed aside amid Preckwinkle’s ongoing concerns over the system’s financial footing.

In this week’s letter, Preckwinkle proposed making some operations of the health system subject to approval by the Board of Commissioners or to at least include the board in more of the health system’s decisions.

When Shannon was ousted by the independent health board in November, county sources and commissioners said that Preckwinkle — who appoints the 11-member board from recommendations made by a nominating committee — had been concerned with the direction of the health system.

Preckwinkle said she was grateful to Shannon for his time at the health system, adding that he made the system “more effective and efficient and improved the quality of care that was delivered.”

“I’m hopeful that, as I said, we can get this done in the next six months and have a new chief executive in place as we move forward,” Preckwinkle said.

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