County health board hears community input

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • August 04, 2009 @ 9:30 AM

The second in a series of seven town hall meetings hosted by the Cook County Health and Hospital System board of directors to help it draw up a long-term strategic plan was big on questions and short on solutions.

But, then again, that was the point.

While many of the 100 or so community members, medical professionals and patient advocates in the crowd last night at the Chicago Urban League, 4510 S. Michigan, were seeking answers to their questions, board members were largely silent, stressing the meetings are about listening to concerns to address in the strategic plan.

Then they asked the crowd a question of their own: If you could keep one health system offering, what would it be?

The question, which could be likened to asking a mother which child is her favorite, drew a smattering of answers ranging from neighborhood clinics and specialty care to prescription services.

“The strategic plan is a process of inquiry,” said moderator Richard Sewell, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. “We’re asking you to (create) a framework in the process of inquiry.”

As the county health system board hashes out its strategic plan for the next three to five years, it is taking into consideration a wealth of obstacles, and a few opportunities.

It serves the county’s largest vulnerable populations – those that pay for services with Medicare or Medicaid. It is dealing with decreased state funding and the possibility of a smaller county-funded budget. It is slashing a net of nearly 900 jobs, through layoffs or attrition, while dealing with a growing patient load.

So it stood to reason that as community members were asking for more services and more attention to specialized areas, board members would offer a slice of reality.

“The pie is only so big,” said health system CEO William Foley.

“That is why we are asking you, ‘what is critical?’” Sewell, who is not a board member, said. “Because we are working with limited resources.”

Pam Johnson, a registered nurse who has worked in the county health system, urged board members to solicit more input from nurses, who are on the front lines of county health care. She also suggested the board develop a method of recouping payment from collar counties when their residents get treated at Cook County facilities.

Foley said the board would look into incorporating more alternative medicine in its repertoire, responding to several people at last night’s meeting and the previous meeting, on July 27.

When the inevitable questions about health care reform cropped up, board members referred back to the health system’s mantra of providing affordable health care for all.

“As we develop our strategic plan, that is at the heart of our mission,” Foley said.

A number of community members stressed the need for more community clinics.

Donna Skinner Echols said it was hard for her neighbors after a clinic at Beethoven Elementary School closed.

“It was good for us because we could talk about health,” she said. “All of a sudden, it was gone.”

The clinic has since reopened, and Skinner Echols told board members local clinics are “an ideal situation for learning,” as well as a way to connect the community through schools.

Other audience members pressed the board to pay more attention to mental health services, dental services and the lack of efficiency in some corners of hospital administration.

Foley said he has been pleased at the turnout. And as the meeting threatened to turn towards irrelevance with calls regarding health care reform, references to Henry Louis Gates and slavery reparations, and an indictment of county commissioners trying to rescind a sales tax, Foley took it in stride.

“I expected a lot of passion,” he said.

The town hall meetings continue this Thursday at 6 p.m. at Malcolm X College. They continue through August, and board members will schedule more in the fall to discuss the progress of the plan.

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.