Westlake Hospital | File photo

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SPRINGFIELD – After the new owners of Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park announced last month their intention to close the nearly century-old health care institution later this year, a bill filed recently in Springfield by area lawmakers could, at the very least, complicate the closing process.

State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-7th), who chairs Westlake’s community advisory board, and state Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-77th), along with two other House members, sponsored a bill that would give the governor the ability to reverse any decision regarding a hospital’s closure made by the Health Facilities Services Review Board.

The bill would make a variety of changes to the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Act, such as requiring the Review Board to suspend any action regarding a pending application to close a hospital until any lawsuit related to the closure is resolved, among other modifications.  

The law was last changed in 2015, when former governor Bruce Rauner was in office, in order to streamline the process of selling and purchasing hospitals.

Welch, Willis, village of Melrose Park officials and others have argued that Pipeline Health, which purchased Westlake, along with two other hospitals — Weiss Memorial in Chicago and West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park — from Tenet Healthcare last year, exploited the modified law and lied in their application to the Review Board about their real intentions for Westlake.

Ahead of purchasing the hospital, Welch and others allege that Pipeline officials repeatedly said that they planned on keeping Westlake open and continuing the critical medical services it provides to a patient population that is predominantly poor and minority. Two weeks after the purchase was finalized, however, Pipeline announced that they planned on closing the hospital.

Since the announcement, the village of Melrose Park has filed a lawsuit alleging that Pipeline engaged in fraud and conspiracy. Currently, Pipeline’s application to close is still under consideration by the Review Board. 

The proposal, HB 123, passed the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee on March 21 by a party line vote of 12 to 6. The bill now awaits future action on the House floor.

During the March 21 hearing that preceded the vote, committee members heard supporters and opponents of the proposal.

Supporters of the bill included representatives with PASO-West Suburban Action Group, a Melrose Park-based immigrants’ rights organization; the village of Melrose Park; and Westlake employees.

Opponents of the bill included representatives with the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, Advocate Healthcare, Northwestern Medicine, the Health Facilities and Services Review Board, and Southern Illinois Healthcare, among other large medical institutions and trade groups.

“This bill is very, very important,” said Lilian Jimenez, PASO’s associate director, told lawmakers during the March 21 hearing, held across the street from the state capitol building.

“If this bill doesn’t pass, we don’t know what will happen,” she said. “Our community is up in arms.”

John Bohmer, the Illinois Health and Hospitals Association’s senior vice president of health policy, said that his organization opposes the fact that the legislation allows the governor “unbridled discretion” to overrule the Review Board and that it introduces “more regulatory red tape” into the healthcare business. 

Bohmer said that before the 2015 changes to the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Act, the negotiations involving a hospital facility’s change of ownership took “several months” before going to the Review Board, which is responsible for approving applications to purchase hospital facilities made by companies. That approval process, Bohmer said, would “take another several months.”

Due to the 2015 law change, he said, the process of negotiating the purchase of the facility and waiting for the Review Board to sign off on the purchase now happens at the same time.

The streamlining, opponents of the proposed House bill have argued, is particularly critical in light of the dramatic changes in the healthcare landscape.

During a Review Board hearing held March 11 in Melrose Park, Joe Ottolino, Westlake’s CEO, said that “hospitals do not play the same role they once did,” arguing that “visits are fewer [and] length of stays are shorter.”

Ottolino added that the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid managed care and private care “have brought massive changes to our system in Illinois and across the country.” Ottolino said that over the last 30 years, patients’ length of stay at Westlake has decreased from nine days to fewer than six days and that the hospital has experienced a drop in patient visits — going from 4,800 two years ago to 4,100 last year.

“With these numbers, it’s no surprise that Westlake’s market share is among the lowest in our service area,” Ottolino said, adding that the hospital “has in excess of 473 medical, surgical and pediatric beds” and reported a $14 million operating loss last year. Meanwhile, he said, Westlake is expected to receive $4 million less in tax credits each year due to changes in state law.

“Every day, we’re spending dollars on empty hospital beds instead of patients,” Ottolino said.

But during the March 21 hearing in Springfield, many Democratic committee members said that it appears that Pipeline exploited the 2015 law change and put profit-oriented considerations before the considerations of the people who may be affected by Westlake’s closing.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-12th) lamented that Pipeline, which is based in California, didn’t appear to do a community needs assessment to effectively evaluate the impact of Westlake’s closing. Feigenholtz said that state policy regulating hospital change of ownership applications should be driven less by concerns about sales transactions than by “community need” because private companies receive state and federal resources.

“It’s about us permitting [these companies] to do business in our state and taking care of our citizens,” she said. “I would really like solid data on what the community needs and what some of the obstacles will be if this institution closes, the social impact of it [and] what it means on West Suburban.”

“If we’re going to drill down to a solution here, we have to be accountable to communities,” Feigenholtz said. “These are state dollars. Hospitals may be businesses, but they’re really not from the perspective of members of this committee. When our families are in hospitals it’s really serious. We worry.”

Although all of the Democratic committee members voted in favor of passing the proposed bill to the full House, most expressed concern about the aspect of the bill that gives the governor the authority to override the Review Board’s decision and said that they’d be willing to work with the bill’s co-sponsors to change that aspect of it.

State Rep. Bob Morgan (D-58th) said that while he supported the bill, he had “concerns about process that we’re setting forth here, because this is quite an extraordinary remedy.”

Morgan added that he’ll work to “restructure this legislation to make sure that future [Review Board] decisions don’t have the same recommended authority from the governor.”

No Pipeline officials were present during the March 21 hearing; instead, they submitted a letter to the committee.

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com