Cook County health budget increased, but counts on federal dollars

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • February 27, 2009 @ 8:00 AM

Though activists are criticizing county commissioners for failing to adequately fund the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, officials there say they can absorb a $14 million cut to their proposed budget by reining in purchasing and extra pay for medical workers.

During a public meeting of the system's board yesterday, the system's interim CEO, David Small, said the leaner budget won't mean service cuts.

Late last year, health officials requested an $866 million budget, a hike of $46 million from 2008. But negotiations led to the county board lopping 2 percent off of that total.

Health advocates say the budget relies too much on anticipated federal funding and puts too much strain on the system.

“We’re really behind the curve in terms of keeping up with the costs to run the second largest health care system in the country,” says Patrick Keenan-Devlin, spokesman for the Emergency Network to Save Cook County Health Services.

“Our economy has completely bottomed out. The first thing to go in a family and a business is health care coverage.”

County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who voted against the budget, says he's disappointed that the county board shaved off $14 million, and worries the move could have unforeseen consequences.

The budget calls for the health system to shed nearly 1,000 non-medical jobs, and to hire about half that number of new medical workers.

“Our concern is that we’re going to find that (the board is) not going to be able to move as quickly as they thought they would to hire 500 new medical people,” he says. “With those people, they’d be able to generate additional revenue and services.”

The budget is getting a boost from two federal programs, including President Obama’s stimulus package. Suffredin says the health system is set to receive an estimated $20 million in matching Medicaid funds from Obama’s package – a measure known as the Federal Medicaid Assistance Percentage (FMAP) - and another $27 million from a hospital assessment plan put into place in November by former President Bush.

Frank Borgers, legislative analyst for the National Nurses Organizing Committee, says drastic cuts implemented in 2007 are still being felt, and the health system’s board is not doing enough to cure the ills of the health and hospitals system.

“From our perspective, the signals that have come out of the board ... have not been good,” he says, citing the elimination of the county’s family management program in July, and the decision to eliminate Oak Forest Hospital’s inpatient surgical program last month.

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17

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