SPRINGFIELD – Gov. J.B. Pritzker could soon have authority to decide whether Illinois hospitals must stay open.
Legislation passed Wednesday in the House on a 69-35 vote that would give the governor that ability. House Bill 123, sponsored by Addison Democrat Kathleen Willis, is in response to an ongoing situation at Westlake Hospital in the western Chicago suburb of Melrose Park.
While opponents voiced many concerns about the bill in past committee hearings and in full debate on the House floor Wednesday, Willis said she will remedy those concerns with a follow-up bill to come once her goal is reached – Westlake staying open.
Supporters of Willis' bill argue its passage is necessary as a signal to the new owner of Westlake that the "lies," "cheating," and "fraud" will not be tolerated.
Critics say it gives the governor far too much power for an issue that is already being resolved by the courts and the state board dedicated to resolving health facilities issues.
Westlake Hospital's predicament dates to last year, when Los Angeles-based Pipeline Health started talks to buy the hospital from its previous owner, Tenet Healthcare.
Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico said the hospital is crucial for the community's largely minority population, as it is the only hospital in the area that delivers babies, is a certified stroke hospital, and has the most beds treating behavioral health and drug addiction.
Prior to the purchase, Pipeline Health testified before the state's Health Facilities and Services Review Board – the state board in charge of approving changes in hospital ownership – that Westlake would stay open for at least two years.
Two weeks after the deal's closure in January 2019, Westlake's owners declared the hospital would be shutting down within months.
The state's health facilities board is set to approve or deny Pipeline's application for closure April 30.
Willis said her bill is specific to keeping Westlake open. It does this by allowing the governor to reverse any of the state board's rulings on hospital closures.
But it also says the health facilities board cannot make any rulings on a hospital that faces pending litigation, as Westlake does from Melrose Park.
"Leader Willis has a bill that says don't protect liars and cheaters, don't protect companies that come in here and abuse our laws," Rep. Chris Welch (D-Westchester) said during Wednesday's House debate.
Earlier in the day, Welch joined community organizers from Melrose Park in hosting a news conference about Westlake Hospital's situation.
Other lawmakers, while recognizing the importance of Westlake to the community, were skeptical about the law's implications.
"The Legislature has significant responsibility to make good public policy, not to respond to individual problems by making dramatic and sweeping changes in the law," said Rep. Tom Demmer, a Republican from Dixon. "Is this the precedent we want to set? To hand over authority to one person?"
Demmer said he did not know of any other state board whose decisions the governor can unilaterally reverse.
Willis said that while the move is necessary to keep Westlake open, it might not be good long-term.
"We're going to make some changes on it in the Senate," Willis said. "While having the governor be able to override is great for right now, long-term that's not the best solution, and I recognize that."
HB 123's passage comes on the verge of other developments regarding Westlake Hospital.
On Tuesday, Pipeline Health said Westlake would no longer admit new patients, and would work to transfer existing ones.
Melrose Park lawyers went to Cook County District Court to prevent the hospital from closing before the state board's April 30 hearing.
Later on Tuesday, Judge Eve Reilly granted Melrose Park a restraining order to prevent Pipeline Health from closing before April 30, arguing the impact to the community would be greater than the financial harm caused to Pipeline.
But, according to a Wednesday contempt of court filing from Melrose Park, Pipeline is disregarding the restraining order by continuing to ban new patients, transfer existing ones, strip equipment, and fire staff.
Pipeline Health did not respond to requests for comment. No ruling has been made on the contempt of court filing.
"It is so important and vital to get this passed today," Willis said during Wednesday's debate. "We have to show Pipeline they cannot lie to the community."
Willis emphasized that Pipeline was breaking the Cook County court's injunction, and that she would correct the "imperfections" in the bill after Westlake Hospital, which has more than 650 employees, is kept open.
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