Big shakeup for Cook County healthcare?

January 21, 2008 3:38:57 PM PST
After years of fighting to keep county hospitals under the control of the Cook County Board, it appears board president Todd Stroger is ready to turn them over to a new independent government board.

Officials say the move would save the county hospital system and its deteriorating financial situation.

The new board would have taxing power and control all contracts and hiring. This proposal is being considered as several more clinics could close by the end of the year.

With his father having died last week, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger was unavailable to comment on the report in Crain's Chicago Business. But several commissioners ABC7 interviewed Monday confirmed that the county is on the verge of a major change in how it pays for its public healthcare system.

At a cost nearing $1 billion a year, the Bureau of Health is Cook County government's single biggest expense and is blamed for most of the county's repeated, annual deficits.

For years, several commissioners have argued the county should get out of the healthcare business, and now, reportedly, board president Todd Stroger has agreed to consider one of their plans. It would cede control of the health bureau to an independent authority. The authority would include seven members, mostly healthcare professionals, appointed by President Stroger.

"We want to make sure they are health professionals and how you make it work with all the federal funding," said Larry Suffredin, (D) Cook County commissioner.

Critics charge the county's current health bureau costs are bloated by political patronage. Under the reorganization plan, all hospital and clinic operations and contracts would be controlled by the independent board. That also would have its own taxing authority, much like the park district in the City of Chicago.

"Can we really say it's free from patronage? Free from political influence? Absolutely not," said Roberto Maldonado, (D) county commissioner.

Meanwhile, pressure is building on Stroger and board members to find a long-term funding solution for the county's hospitals and clinics, several more of which could be closed later this year.

Commissioner Suffredin said the state legislature would have final approval over any new health authority with taxing power. He said he did not believe such a move necessarily would mean higher taxes.

"It would depend upon what they decide. It's possible there could be a tax increase. I would hope with a professional administrator, we would be able to get more federal dollars than we're getting now," Suffredin said.

The plan to set up an independent health authority also could be a key to breaking the ongoing budget stalemate in Cook County. President Stroger supports a sales tax increase to fill a $238 million deficit. It is hoped that some commissioners opposed to the increase might reconsider if Stroger agrees to reform in how the health bureau is run.