St. Francis should have tried bribes
By Michael M. Bates
St. Francis Hospital serves a number of low-income people in suburban Chicago. Losing millions of dollars by caring for uninsured patients, four years ago St. Francis sought approval to build an additional hospital in a more prosperous suburb, Orland Park. The idea was to generate income that would help the original facility survive.
Readers may wonder why, in this land so blessed by the fruits of free enterprise, a hospital would have to get state permission to serve a new community. There is no good reason.
Nevertheless, the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board must endorse all such undertakings. Its members, appointed by the governor and ratified by the Illinois Senate, wield heavy clout in a state where clout is king. And when the governor is Milorad Blagojevich, also known as "Public Official A" in Federal indictments, the possibilities are endless.
The Associated Press last month reported that, when he was a state senator, Barack Obama was among a handful of officials consulted about who should be appointed to the board. The Hillary Clinton Detective Agency must be having a field day investigating that.
The board and its workings have been focal points during the corruption trial of Mr. Obama's personal Welcome Wagon host, Tony Rezko.
Testimony at the trial targets Rezko as the behind the scenes manipulator of the board's actions. In 2003, a hospital project in McHenry County was proposed. Experts said the hospital wasn't necessary and the application appeared dead.
Then - hallelujah - a miracle occurred. The board's vice chairman asked Rezko a hypothetical question: If the two of them could make a lot of money off the deal, would it make a difference? "You bet!" was Rezko's enthusiastic reply. The board official suggested they might split a $1.5 million bribe from the likely contractor, who would also give generously to Blagojevich. Shortly afterwards, the board approved the new facility.
St. Francis Hospital should have paid attention. The Catholic-affiliated health center was founded by the Sisters of St. Mary over a hundred years ago and has repeatedly been recognized as a top cardiovascular center. But that doesn't count for much in the People's Republic of Illinois. The hospital could have greased the wheels with some cold cash.
New members of the board were appointed in 2004 after its shenanigans became so manifest that even Blagojevich had to put down his hairbrush and do something. Former Democratic congressman and current president of Southern Illinois University Glenn Poshard was appointed the new board's chairman. Dr. Poshard brings his own baggage to the table. Just Google his name and "plagiarism" and you'll see what I mean.
At the same time St. Francis made its application to build in Orland Park, Advocate Health Care sought approval for a new facility in adjacent Tinley Park. Both requests were shot down on the basis that there are plenty of other hospitals already serving the same general area. It's just that local residents are resistant to go to them.
Board members decided to play that old reliable, the race card. The Daily Southtown editorialized:
If the board were genuinely concerned about minorities, it would have given the green light to St. Francis's plan. More than one-third of the residents in the town in which it's located are Hispanic. Almost one-fourth are African-American.
Those Census Bureau figures are from 2000, so it's probable the minority mix has increased since then. Moreover, many of the people receiving treatment at St. Francis are from Chicago's South Side.
Had St. Francis been allowed to build in Orland Park, it's possible the original facility could have been saved and continued serving a community now denied a top quality health care center.
Inhibiting competition isn't the way to improve the delivery of health care. In Springfield, Senate Republicans want to abolish the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board. Or at least that's what they say. Illinois doesn't benefit from a robust two-party system and many Republicans are that in name only.
With a meddling, anti-free market board filled with Public Official A's appointees, fine institutions like St. Francis Hospital don't have a prayer.
This Michael Bates column appeared in the April 17, 2008 Reporter Newspapers.