Mercy Hospital's slated closure among wave of medical centers vanishing from Chicago area

ABC7 I-Team data uncovers an alarming trend hitting Black neighborhoods especially hard

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Mercy Hospital's slated closure among wave of medical centers vanishing from Chicago area
Mercy would be the fourth hospital on Chicago's South or West sides to close since 2018.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The ABC7 I-Team looked into a community "Begging for Mercy" as one of Chicago's most deeply-rooted hospitals is slated for closure in the middle of a pandemic.

And as COVID-19 starts to resurge, there is new hospital data that charts a concerning trend about the fate of other Chicago medical centers as a wave of critical health services are vanishing from predominantly Black neighborhoods.

The announcement this past summer of Mercy's planned closure set off alarm bells for patients such as Tracy Lyons.

"I've been in a nine year battle," Lyons said. "I'm fighting for my life."

The 47-year-old mother and grandmother has fought and survived many difficult and life-threatening conditions from multiple sclerosis to open heart surgery and currently, stage 4 breast cancer. Her medical odyssey is far from over.

Most of her care has been delivered at the non-profit Mercy Hospital. Her confidence in the institution is unshaken - even after a mass shooting in 2018.

Lyons was in Mercy's parking lot that chilly November afternoon when a gunman opened fire. She ran back into the hospital, where she said two nurses kept her safe.

"We locked ourselves in the utility closet -those nurses, they prayed with me," Lyons said.

The violence left four dead: a police officer, a physician, a pharmacy resident and the gunman. Lyons said that despite the scare, she would never give up on Mercy because it's never given up on her.

She joins a growing chorus of outrage as community activists, politicians and healthcare workers demand action from state and city leaders to prevent the planned closure early next year.

WATCH: Protest demands Mercy Hospital be saved

A Tuesday protest, the latest in a line of many protests, is calling for the city to save Mercy Hospital, arguing that closing it as planned would greatly damage the community.

Dr. Ezekiel Richardson, an ER resident at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, joined a recent rally in support of keeping Mercy open.

"When we say Black Lives Matter, what that means is prioritize those Black lives and keep the resources that allow them to stay safe -- open," said Richardson.

Mercy Hospital sits in the Bronzeville neighborhood just south of downtown Chicago. It's what's known as a "safety net hospital," meaning it provides care to vulnerable patients regardless of their ability to pay.

According to state records, the majority of those served at Mercy are low income and people of color- many elderly and suffering from chronic diseases. They are also at greater risk of becoming infected and dying from COVID-19.

"We take care of everybody that comes to the door," said Dr. John Cudeki, a urologist who said he's been seeing patients at Mercy for about 27 years.

He worries what will happen to the patients and staff when the teaching hospital closes.

Cudecki believes roughly 1,700 employees will lose their jobs, countless patients may delay or forego care and he predicts the South Side will become a healthcare desert.

"They do 50,000 emergency room visits a year and 3,500 elective surgeries a year. So that is going to be tough to absorb, especially on the South Side, where there is no place to absorb that," said Cudecki.

State Representative Lamont Robinson, whose district includes Mercy, said losing the hospital will only widen an already unacceptable racial healthcare gap in Chicago. He said, "Most definitely, there is a racial component."

Last spring, Robinson and other lawmakers declined to support a proposed merger of Mercy with three other financially struggling hospitals, claiming it was an ill-defined plan.

That merger fell through. The freshman lawmaker told the I-Team that new negotiations are underway.

"There are other groups that have reached out to me that want to acquire the hospital. And so I'm working diligently with those groups and the governor's office to keep the hospital open, but we need Mercy, Trinity the parent company to entertain those offers," said Robinson.

Mercy Hospital, which is owned by Trinity Health, declined an on-camera interview.

In an email statement, it said: "Trinity welcomes inquiries from legitimate potential buyers who have adequate funding to meet the operating and capital needs of the hospital within the timeframe that's been laid out."

It details how Trinity has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the hospital since 2012, has worked hard to find potential buyers -- and is disappointed the merger plan was not approved by legislators.

The statement also says a remaining challenge is there are too many empty hospital beds on the South Side. It also cites on-going operational losses of $4 million dollars a month.

A lifeline for Mercy will not stop the steady erosion of urban area hospitals closures that are increasing, according to the data.

SOURCE: Illinois Health and Hospital Association

The ABC7 I-Team analyzed data spanning 20 years and discovered an upsurge in Chicago and Cook County closures of general hospitals.

In that time period, 22% of Cook County's hospitals have closed - nearly one in four. Eight hospitals have closed in Chicago alone and 23% of city hospitals have gone in just two decades. Mercy would be the fourth hospital on the South or West sides to close since 2018.

Dr. Linda Rae Murray, an adjunct Assistant Professor at the UIC School of Public Health, said many hospitals are stressed right now.

"We're only in the early stages of his pandemic. That's going to put real strain on hospitals in Chicago and I will not be surprised if we see another four or six hospitals close in the next 18 months," said Murray.

She said companies should not be making a profit off of sick people and she strongly advocates for a massive health system overhaul in the United States.

"We should be fighting for universal healthcare for everyone and we should make sure hospitals like Mercy and all hospitals are not out of business just because they are taking care of poor people."

Governor JB Pritzker recently said possible lawmakers will provide funds for Mercy and other troubled South Side hospitals when they return for the fall veto session in November. Mercy and now Northwestern Medicine have announced separate plans to build outpatient facilities in the Bronzville area --a growing trend in healthcare as more hospitals hit financial breaking points.

Late Tuesday, The Chicago Health Equity Coalition held a rally outside the Thompson Center in Chicago to demand a meeting with the governor over the slated closure of Mercy.

Those at the rally said it's critical that full-service health care be preserved at Mercy's current location on the South Side.

There was no immediate response from the governor's office.

Full statement from Mercy Hospital

"The decision to discontinue services at Mercy Hospital was not an easy one. But the current approach to health care on the South Side today is causing rising disparities in outcomes of health that need to be addressed with preventive care. That was the focus of our proposed Southside Transformation merger and it remains our focus looking forward to the future. We hope leaders across the city and state will take the bold steps necessary to transform our system of care to better meet the needs of South Side patients. We are committed to being a part of that transformation."