Mercy Hospital photo

Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance and former education organizer of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), speaks during a rally to save Mercy Hospital on Nov. 24. 

The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board voted unanimously today to reject Mercy Hospital's request to close, with regulators agreeing that the health care provider gave vital care to surrounding communities south of downtown.

The Bronzeville hospital is not out of the woods yet, however: WBEZ reports that the operator, Trinity Health, can take Illinois to court or close anyway and take a $10,000 fine on top of $10,000 for every 30 days the hospital stays open without permission from the agency.

WBEZ reports that Mercy is routinely staffing fewer than half of its 400 beds and loses $4 million a month.

Nevertheless, the board's decision is a victory for South Side community and labor activists who lobbied officials to keep the safety-net hospital open.

"The community and stakeholders around Mercy must determine its direction," Ald. Sophia King (4th) said over text. "Cutting emergency care and various medical professional services is unacceptable even outside of a pandemic. 

"I was disappointed that the leadership of Mercy (and Trinity) was evasive and inaccurate in its testimony. I appreciate the Board of Review for recognizing the inadequacy of their proposal even though it was wrapped in a pretty bow," she said, furthermore thanking the activists and county Commissioner Bill Lowry (D-3rd), state Rep. Lamont Robinson (D-3rd) and state Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-3rd), whose districts cover Mercy Hospital, 2525 S. Michigan Ave.

Lowry, in a statement, said, "When communities come together, we see change. We stood together as a community advocating against the proposed closure of Mercy. Mercy Hospital will remain open, but the fight is not over for Mercy.

"The fight is not over for addressing the healthcare desert on Chicago's South Side and the southern suburbs. Mercy Hospital is a staple of the South Side of Chicago. This was a step in the right direction, but there are more steps to follow. I promise to continue walking those steps with our community stakeholders, my fellow elected officials, and most importantly, with all of you."

In a statement, Robinson, who additionally represents Washington Park and western Woodlawn in Springfield, said he is "cautiously relieved" by the "short-term victory."

“The hospital’s owner, Trinity Health, should never have sought to close Mercy during the pandemic," he said. "Nevertheless, I and my colleagues in the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus were ready before and remain available now to discuss financing, structural and ownership options to continue Mercy’s 168-year-old mission, whether it’s owned by Trinity or a new owner.

“Mercy is essential to the well-being of the people of Bronzeville and surrounding communities. It has one of the busiest emergency departments in the city, with just over 50,000 visits a year. It had 350,000 outpatient visits and nearly 12,000 hospital admissions in 2018. Mercy Hospital is the second largest provider of maternity care on the South Side," Robinson continued.

“Now that the board has ruled to keep Mercy open, we must work to strengthen it while we look to additional avenues to improve the availability of health care for all Chicagoans.”

In Gov. J.B. Pritzker's daily COVID-19 update — in which he announced his plan for more than $700 million in spending reductions for fiscal year 2021 in light of the failure to pass his "Fair Tax" constitutional amendment and the continuing impact of the coronavirus recession on the state's finances — Pritzker praised the decision and said he was ready to work.

"Health care is a right and not a privilege," he said, adding that he has spoken not only with Trinity Health, but with "a number of potential buyers to try to push things along to try to push things along to make sure that something will happen here to save the hospital."

But saving Mercy will require action from Springfield, Pritzker said. Sen. Hunter said the plan now is crafting a plan for ownership.

"The elected officials will be getting together soon to map out our next plan," she said. 

Asked about Mercy's unstaffed beds and chronic loss of money, Hunter answered, "I think that Mercy is intentionally downsizing to make it look like and to justify them losing money. They've been losing money, according to their financial statements and their executive summary to their Health Facilities and Review Board, since 2012. I think they've been slowly deteriorating services out of the hospital."

Hunter castigated Mercy's Trinity administrators, saying they ran emergency medical technicians as well as the cardiology department out. "I think they have been slowly deteriorating different specialty services over the years," she said. "I think they've been slowing pulling out the resources, and this is their history throughout the country. All of the cities and the locations that they're located in, they've closed several safety nets and other hospitals this year alone."

"We are going to have to hold them accountable, and we are going probably put some systems in place to discourage these hospitals and different ownership into the state of Illinois to operate under the pretense that they're only going to be in for three to five years or whatever," Hunter said when asked what the General Assembly would do about health policy. 

She also promised involving the departments of Healthcare and Family Services and Public Health: "We ourselves are going to have to get together and figure this thing out, because it simply ain't working the way it's going on now."

Sen. Peters stressed that groups other than Trinity "want an opportunity to be in Mercy." He also said Trinity, during ultimately unsuccessful talks earlier this year when Mercy was trying to merge with three other South Side hospitals, was only trying to get rid of Mercy.

"I will say that there are a lot of issues currently with our health care system, a lot of issues currently with funding, a lot of issues with population transformation that need to happen, but I will also say that it's not like Trinity is a good-faith actor right now," Peters said. "The fact that the board did not approve a (closing), at least in this round, if Trinity has a timeline in their head, they've got to find a way to work within that timeline."

WBEZ reported that Trinity had planned to close Mercy by May 31, 2021.

Although Hunter said the board's decision only represented "Round 1," she credited the win squarely to the activists whom she said convinced the state board to keep Mercy open.

"I hope this is a lesson for people who never marched, complained or got involved with different movements that we can all make a difference in our community, and we can turn our community around only if we work together as a team," Hunter said. "We didn't do it just one time. Things we happening on a regular basis, you see? And different stories were being told. And all of those people participated. All of those people who participated, we all won today."

The Illinois General Assembly reconvenes in January. 

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