County officials say the planned closure of clinics in Woodlawn and Bronzeville is necessary in the face of finances wrecked by the coronavirus pandemic as union members protested layoffs and the elimination of resources in neighborhoods.
Two clinics -- the Woodlawn, 6337 S. Woodlawn Ave., and Near South 3525 S. Michigan Ave. -- will close on Dec. 1.
Out of the 130 layoffs across Cook County Health (CCH), 70 will be union positions and 60 will be non-union; 46 of the layoffs have already happened. None will be in the county's public health or jail divisions, but 23 will be at Provident Hospital of Cook County, 500 E. 51st St., most of which will occur on Dec. 1.
Andrea Gibson, the Chief Business Officer of Cook County Health, said the layoffs in the Washington Park hospital "are based on the efficiencies that we are finding in converting the model for the (emergency department) and also limiting the staffing to the beds that are actually utilized."
The Chicago Tribune has reported that the new Provident Hospital, to be completed sometime in 2023 or 2024, will have an emergency department more capable of delivering comprehensive care. As COVID-19 cases spiked in Chicago this April, Provident closed its emergency room and sent patients to the University of Chicago Medical Center.
"I wouldn't say we're reducing services," said Gibson on a press call after the health care system's board of directors passed the budget, which the Cook County Board will vote on after a public comment period. "We're providing services and in some cases enhancing services with fewer resources."
"The layoffs that have already occurred were with nonunion employees; the remainder will be Dec. 1, and there will be a whole process with the collective processing agreements," Gibson continued. "When someone is laid off, they may bump a less senior person. So I really can't comment on who may be laid off."
Gibson said the budget was drafted assuming another COVID-19 surge into next year that would impact CCH's patient volume and revenue. They do not anticipate more federal aid akin to that which was received earlier this year in response to the pandemic.
County officials have said that all services currently provided at the Woodlawn and Near South health centers will continue to be provided at Provident, with at-call transportation for patients to make their appointments.
But at a protest outside of Provident organized by the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United, nurse Dennis Kosuth called public transportation inefficient and said many patients lack vehicles to get to and from appointments; he dismissed the county's offer to provide transportation to patients, saying that any transportation takes time and therefore delays care.
"All the cuts that have happened will have an impact on people," he said.
While the Woodlawn and Near South health centers are closing, CCH is putting in a new dialysis center and other services at the John Sengstacke Health Center, 500 E. 51st St. Gibson said this is because CCH is responding to the demand for outpatient services at Provident.
"We want to make sure that we bolster the outpatient services, but the fact of the matter is that people are not coming to the emergency room or the emergency unit in the same numbers," she said. "We just need to staff to volume and modify our operations to meet the service demands."
Addressing reporters on Aug. 28 outside of Provident, union nurse Nahsis Davis admonished Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for cutting resources on the South Side.
"They found a Black woman to make that call," she said. "CCHHS (the Cook County Health and Hospital System) wants Preckwinkle and the Board of Commissioners to close units in the first hospital operated and owned by African Americans in the U.S., the same hospital that trained African American nurses, such as myself, as early as 1891."
The health system is in a deficit, Davis acknowledged, but she urged the administration not to cut facilities in an area that has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. "We understand the realities of the Cook County budget," she said, "but both the federal government and the State of Illinois understand that you cannot balance on the backs of people who are now experiencing unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression."
Davis called upon Cook County to take on additional debt "to prevent increased suffering in the community caused by health care cuts during a pandemic."
Gibson, in turn, called the suggestion a nonstarter. "Our focus is on having a balanced budget and making sure we can provide service to our patients," she said. "I think it's important that we still be able to provide those services in an efficient and cost-effective way. "The financial condition of the health system can't support more debt payments."
County Commissioner Bill Lowry (D-3rd) has already said that CCH faces a $187 million deficit going into next year.
Asked for response to the closing of the Near South Health Clinic in her ward, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose jurisdiction also includes Provident, commented, "If all those resources are following people to Provident Hospital and those individuals have better access to other things that they may need — surgery, pharmacy — perhaps that's not such a bad move."
But Dowell was still concerned about what the layoffs may mean for CCH's inpatient and emergency operations: "I'm concerned about the services that my constituents — I think there are about 5,000 people who go through the center on Michigan Avenue — that those services are provided to those constituents who are now going to be in Provident."
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said 4,000 patients use the Woodlawn Health Center.
"I don't like that my seniors and other folks who use the facility are going to have somewhere else to go, but in a budget shortfall, what do we do?" Taylor said. "I said to (CCH), 'People are going to feel that any time there's a budget shortfall, why is it that the South and West sides are the communities that always have to suffer with a loss?'"
Outside of the Woodlawn Health Center, Olivia Young, who came to the clinic from her home in West Lawn for a doctor's appointment, was livid to hear about the planned closure, saying she planned to write Preckwinkle and Pastor Byron Brazier of the Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S. Dorchester Ave., to register her discontent.
While Gibson called the Woodlawn facility antiquated on the press call, Young commented on its cleanliness. She said she has gone to Provident to get X-rays and therapy and does not mind traveling there, but she said the Woodlawn clinic's staff is courteous.
She also admires its smaller scale compared with Provident. "You've got more people coming. We're in an epidemic. If you go there, there's a bigger risk factor," she said.
Young, who grew up in Woodlawn, encouraged Preckwinkle and other county officials to think about the position of working class and poor people who use the clinic.
"People going to work, because that's their livelihood," she said. "You got people who don't have a car. You got people who are disabled — although they've got para-transit, they get accustomed to a particular setting. Then you've got people in this neighborhood who will actually walk to this clinic."
"I'm angry because you're moving this out of here. You're constantly moving stuff out of the impoverished neighborhoods when they're steadily building up the rich neighborhoods," she said, adding that it does not matter that the doctors and services are moving. "Businesses all up and down the streets are closed. You've got abandoned buildings. You can't do this. It goes all the way back, this whole ZIP code."