Activists blast U of C on charity care

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • June 04, 2009 @ 11:00 AM

Hours after a U.S. Congressman announced he was requesting a federal investigation into allegations of patient dumping at the University of Chicago Medical Center, activists gathered on the school's campus to discuss their concerns about the university's behavior.

A group of panelists last night told a crowd of more than 100 how they feel the university doesn't listen the input of the community and staff members, and is ignoring its medical responsibility to the community.

Earlier in the day, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush called on a Congressional oversight committee to look into patient dumping charges at the hospital.

"We are turning away patients that we used to take," said Debra Hughes, a hospital admissions staffer and liaison to Teamster 743. "Our patients are suffering now because they are being shifted to community hospitals where they are not receiving the intensive and extensive care" they would at U of C.

She said hospital staffers are being pushed out because they cannot afford care at U of C.

"You can clean it, but you can't afford the deductable," she said.

The event was organized by a group called the Coalition for Healthcare Access Responsibility and Transparency,

Hughes and others complained of what they see as a pattern of the university marginalizing South Side communities by redirecting poor patients to community clinics and other hospitals, while accepting more lucrative patients for high-tech specialty procedures.

In 2005, the university embarked on its Urban Health Initiative, designed to take pressure off a busy emergency room and give patients medical homes in the community. The university denies it is pushing poor patients out, and says it sees more Medicaid patients than any hospital in the state.

Cynthia Ashley, a South Side resident, said she was recently told to receive care for a broken kneecap at Stroger Hospital after her insurance was rejected at U of C.

Pete Thomas, a physician and assistant professor at U of C, says waiting times at his clinic, across the street from the medical center, are skyrocketing.

"We're seeing sicker and sicker patients who are waiting longer and longer to see me," he said. "It's a right and wrong issue...(Doctors) didn't get into this to decide who we want and don't want to see."

In his complaint, Rush said the university's tax benefits far outweigh the charity care it is required by law to give.

Heather O'Donnell, an analyst for the bi-partisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said studies done by her organization show that on average Chicago hospitals receive three times more in tax breaks than they give in charity care.

While U of C provides "a tremendous amount in charity care, they still receive about $50 million more in tax breaks than they provide in charity care," she said. She said there is no organization designated to monitor how much charity care non-profit hospitals provide, nor is the law clear in how much to provide.

Panelists were also critical of the university decision to close a popular women's clinic in Kenwood. The university says the clinic, set to close in late June or early July, is losing money, and patients will be able to get care at other U of C facilities.

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.