On Tuesday, January 26, a state board voted 3-2 to deny Mercy Hospital’s owner, Trinity Health, permission to open a new outpatient care center on the South Side. That decision, from the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, came a month after the board rejected Trinity’s proposal to cut outpatient services at the Bronzeville medical center. The recent vote to deny the application is separate from the vote needed to close Mercy Hospital. The board is scheduled to revisit that issue at its March meeting.
Some of those who spoke in opposition to the outpatient center during the hearing said they believe Trinity wants to open the center as an excuse to close the hospital and replace it with another facility. According to elected officials and community groups, the proposed center would only offer urgent care, diagnostic imaging, and referral services, and would not be affiliated with any hospital or health care system.
Seven months ago, Mercy, the oldest hospital in Chicago serving residents on the South Side, announced its plans to end outpatient services. CEO Carol Schneider shared the news via a memo to employees in July 2020 after “transformation plans” to consolidate with other hospitals into one giant health system had failed. The merger would have included South Shore, St. Bernard, and Advocate Trinity hospitals with an estimated $1.1 billion price tag. The four hospitals asked Illinois lawmakers to cover $520 million of the tab over five years, but they said no.
On January 15, the Chicago Health Equity Coalition held a Zoom meeting attended by county, city, state, federal government officials, and community organizations across Chicago. The meeting centered on how officials can ensure that Mercy remains open. Elected officials included 4th Ward Alderwoman Sophia King, whose ward is home to the hospital, 3rd Ward Alderwoman Pat Dowell, Congressman Bobby Rush, State Senators Mattie Hunter and Robert Peters, state Representatives Theresa Mah and Lamont Robinson, and County Board Commissioner Bill Lowry.
Previously, in mid-December, the review board voted unanimously, in a departure from tradition, to keep the hospital open due to concerns over health care access for South Siders. Historically, the review board has never denied a hospital closure.
During the January meeting, Lowry said three entities have expressed interest in acquiring the safety-net hospital so that it continues to operate at full service. Though he did not mention names, he said two of them are local hospitals and one is an investment group, adding “they are interested in stepping into that space if the opportunity opens.” Lowry said capital and transformation funds would be available to the buyer in order to make it happen.
According to King, if Trinity were to pursue zoning changes in her ward, she would not support it. “I’ve made it clear that I am not going to give them that,” she said. Under the current zoning, Mercy can only operate as a hospital and they’d require a zoning change to repurpose the building for something else. “We are looking to have Trinity Health sell or hand over (Mercy)… to continue to provide comprehensive healthcare.”
Robinson said he is currently working with Governor J.B. Pritzker, among others, to make sure that the entity that is open to acquiring Mercy will keep Mercy as a full-fledged hospital. “We are looking to provide that entity with state funds to be able to operate.” Robinson said he is also looking forward to working with new Illinois State House Speaker Emanuel Welch, who advocated for Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park to reopen in April 2020. “He understands our concerns to keep quality healthcare in our community and has come out to support us,” said Robinson, adding that because Pritzker has been engaging and listening to elected officials, Trinity has been engaging too.
South Side Weekly reached out to the governor’s office and Trinity Health for comment but neither were available before press time.
Dr. Anudeep Dasaraju, an emergency medicine resident at Mercy, thinks the hospital’s decision to cut outpatient services will not serve the needs of South Side residents. “Not only in my opinion, but in the opinion of healthcare providers across the board, this is grossly inadequate,” he said. Dasaraju explained that if Mercy were to provide urgent care services, someone experiencing a stroke or a heart attack would not be treated; rather, they’d be seen, then transferred to another hospital. Dasaraju said this drastic change would delay care and patients would have to reestablish relationships with doctors who have treated them for years. Dasaraju also said not all of the hospitals within Mercy’s catchment area are equipped to treat strokes and heart attacks. “How can you transform healthcare through the elimination of services?” he asked rhetorically.
“Mercy is renowned for their treatment of high-risk pregnancy,” said Dr. John Picken, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Mercy. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that Black women have the highest risk of pregnancy-related heart problems. And in Illinois, Black women are six times more likely than other women to diefrom pregnancy-related conditions.
“We need to keep Mercy open and have an opportunity for these mothers and their babies to have a chance of a normal life, and not live thirty years shorter life spans than people outside of the South Side health desert,” said Picken, who has worked at Mercy for fifty-one years and has delivered around 3,500 babies. “If Mercy closes, there is no place for people to go, and there is no place where they will receive this type of care.”
During the meeting, Picken added that while the University of Chicago Medical Center does offer these services, they do not take patients without insurance and Medicaid.
Jitu Brown, national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance, juxtaposed Mercy Hospital’s mission statement of fighting for justice and serving the poor with that of their decision to eliminate services to people who desperately need them. “It was morally shocking when we heard that Trinity Health Systems was proposing the closure of Mercy Hospital even though this organization made 4.2 million dollars last year,” he said. “They are slated to close in the middle of a global pandemic… when the people that are losing lives are Black, brown and low-income.”
Beyond mobilizing to keep Mercy open and full service, activists are looking at what the future of healthcare should look like on the South Side. While the elimination of hospital services will create a healthcare desert for Black and brown people, there is also an existing community-wide underinvestment in medical care. That is why Shannon Bennett, executive director of Chicago Health Equity Coalition, asked elected officials to participate in an ongoing strategic process to address healthcare delivery for residents on the South and West sides that all the elected officials present at the meeting agreed to.
According to Mercy, their final date of operation is expected to be sometime between February and May.
Alma Campos is a bilingual reporter based in McKinley Park. Her writing has appeared in Univision Chicago, WTTW, and Crain’s and focuses on immigrant and working-class communities of color in the South and West Sides. She last wrote for the Weekly about the fight against General Iron.