Rush calls for investigation at U of C for patient dumping allegations

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • June 03, 2009 @ 5:38 PM

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) is calling on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to investigate allegations that the University of Chicago Medical Center is practicing patient dumping, an illegal act where hospitals divert poor or uninsured patients to other hospitals.

"As an institution that receives federal funds, I am concerned about recent media reports that allege the medical center is turning away and refusing treatment to low-income, uninsured patients," Rush said in a letter to U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), the committee chairman.

Rush, who called patient dumping "a widespread problem" in American health care, said he might move to lift the hospital's federal funding if it turns out the allegations are true.

Rush's office has been monitoring the situation at U of C, which has come under fire in recent months for practices that some perceive as slighting blacks and the poor. A Rush spokeswoman told the Daily News in March that Rush was aware of the situation and looking into it. Rush's district includes Hyde Park, where the hospital is located.

U of C has repeatedly denied patient dumping allegations, and says people are misunderstanding the university's intention to promote the idea of medical homes in neighborhoods.

The university says its Urban Health Initiative, crafted in part by Michelle Obama while she worked there, seeks to provide more neighborhood services. Hospital officials hope the initiative will lift pressure on its crowded emergency room as it seeks to trim $100 million from its budget.

Medical center spokesman John Easton said in a statement the university was "disappointed" in the news.

"We are surprised and disappointed that Congressman Rush has made this request without notifying the Medical Center or trying to verify the allegations, which his news release attributes to 'recent media accounts,'" he said.

The statement continued: "The Medical Center's contributions to care for the poor are many times the value of its tax exemptions. The Medical Center is also an anchor for health care for the poor on the South Side of Chicago. It is a leading proponent of health care reform and has invested millions of dollars in building a sorely needed network, the Urban Health Initiative, which includes collaborations with federally qualified health centers and community hospitals to develop a sustainable system of providers throughout the region."

In his letter, Rush expressed concern that the medical center's tax breaks far outweighed its charity care. It receives $58.6 million in tax benefits, and provides $10 million in charity care.

"The only requirement in our nation's hospitals should be that a person is ill," he said.

Deborah Taylor, a spokeswoman for Southside Together Organizing for Power, which opposes the clinic closure, was pleased to hear that Rush is seeking an investigation.

"I'm extremely happy that Congressman Rush has intervened because we need intervention now more than ever, because we need more help," she says. "There's no one who can advocate for the poor and the helpless and the fragile."

STOP, along with several other community groups, is holding a forum tonight at U of C to discuss how concerns about the medical center.

The university has been taking lumps from all sides in recent months. Last summer, several newspapers criticized Michelle Obama's relationship with the hospital and questioned how it treated poor patients. In September, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) requested information from medical center CEO James Madera concerning the hospital's tax-exempt status.

In February, the Chicago Tribune reported a boy who had been mauled by a pit bull was diverted to Stroger Hospital for treatment,  The university says it treated the boy to the best of its ability.

In March, a cadre of doctors wrote to Madera protesting the university's plans to shrink its emergency room, forcing it to reconsider some of its plans.

Late last month, the medical center announced it was closing a popular South Side women's clinic. Protesters gathered at the Women's Health Center, 1301 E. 47th St., last week to rally against the closure, calling it a move motivated by money and gentrification.

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.