A ragtag procession of patients in wheelchairs made their way down the long drive leading from Oak Forest Hospital to the 159th Street entrance on Friday afternoon to hold a rally protesting their threatened relocation.
Many were paraplegics or quadriplegics. They were bundled in coats and blankets. Some had to be pushed, while others had just enough arm strength to manipulate the controls on their motorized wheelchairs.
Zabrian Goodrich, 35, paralyzed in an auto accident, said he has been at Oak Forest for two years. Ralph Scroggins, 48, has been there seven years since suffering a spinal cord injury that he says resulted from surgery at Stroger Hospital. Glenn Wise, 46, has been an Oak Forest patient for 18 years, since he was shot in the head by a Chicago Police officer after he pulled a stickup with a toy gun.
In all, there are more than 200 affected patients in long-term care at Oak Forest, most of them too ill or incapacitated to even make the trip outside the hospital for the protest.
Many see Oak Forest Hospital as home
All of them, though, landed at this county-owned health facility for more or less the same reason: they have long-term, complicated medical needs but few if any resources of their own, and somebody believed this was the best place to take care of them.
Now, however, the county’s top health official, Dr. Robert Simon, has decided it’s not cost-effective to provide care for such patients at Oak Forest and that they’ll be just as well off in nursing homes or other skilled-care facilities.
So hospital officials sent the patients and their family members and guardians a letter last week warning that they intend to discontinue all long-term care services and have set a target date of Sept. 1. The discharge process is scheduled to begin May 1, the letter warned. At the very least, county officials say, they intend to trim the number of patients in long-term care to 70.
That news has been both frightening and confusing to the patients, many of whom have come to think of Oak Forest as their home.
I confess to being a little confused myself.
The way I see it, either somebody was fooling us all these years about the need to care for these folks at Oak Forest, or they’re trying to fool us now about how it won’t hurt anything to send them elsewhere.
It’s not as if anything has changed other than the people in charge, those being Simon and the guy who put him in the job, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.
Stroger is facing budget problems that weren’t of his own making and is feeling pressure to operate the county health system more efficiently without raising taxes. I understand that.
But this doesn’t have the feel of a decision that was carefully considered. And more important, I don’t see any evidence that anybody has made a thoughtful analysis of the needs of these patients, the supply of which, it should be noted, is constantly replenishing itself.
Dr. Srinivas Jolepalem, an attending physician at Oak Forest, said patients need the extra medical attention they receive at the hospital, which would not be available at a regular nursing home. Many are still trying to learn to walk and talk again.
Jolepalem claims that moving the patients could cause their conditions to deteriorate — or even kill them. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think Stroger and Simon should have to publicly explain why it isn’t.
The protest was organized by Service Employees International Union Local 20, which has 600 members working at the hospital, many of whose jobs are threatened by the cutbacks.
Paying the price
As I shivered in the cold outside the hospital gates with the patients and the union members, I couldn’t help but remember a similarly frigid spring day just one year ago, when I stood outside a polling place in Cook County Board President John Stroger’s home ward on primary Election Day.
The polling place was being manned by a pair of Oak Forest workers, dressed in their purple SEIU windbreakers with matching yellow sneakers. These “Soldiers for Stroger” were part of the union’s massive effort to turn out the vote for the stroke-stricken County Board president, motivated by scare tactics alleging that his opponent Forrest Claypool intended to dismantle the county health-care system and eliminate their jobs, despite his pledges to the contrary.
Now it’s the patients who are paying the price for their miscalculation.
BY MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist