Health Care : Many hospitals left saying, 'huh?'

    Board's vote seems to hinge more on politics than criteria

    By Alice Hohl[0]

    Staff writer

    A strange turn of events at the Illinois Health Facilities Planning
Board on Wednesday has stoked fears the board -- which will decide the
fate of two Orland Park hospital plans in June -- is being politicized.

    On Wednesday, the board narrowly approved Illinois' first new
hospital in almost 25 years -- a 70-bed hospital to open in 2006 as Mercy
Crystal Lake Hospital and Health Center.

    The board turned down two hospitals proposed for Plainfield and
Bolingbrook, saying they did not meet state criteria.

    The Crystal Lake plan, put forth by Mercy Health System, was
unanimously rejected in December.

    It won approval on a 4-to-3 vote Wednesday, with one pass, after
several speeches and developments that left health care professionals in
the audience puzzled.

    Board members spoke of the board's power to ignore state criteria.
They whispered in conferences during the vote, and one board member
changed his mind after seeing the votes of his peers.

    Those for and against the two proposed hospitals in the Orland
Park/Tinley Park Interstate 80 corridor came to the hearing and watched
closely for signs of what to expect in June, when their proposals come
before the board.

    Stunned by what unfolded, hospital executives did not want to comment
on the "irregularities" because many of them have projects pending before
the board.

    In December, the board denied Mercy's Crystal Lake proposal. Hospital
planners had a chance to modify their plans to meet state standards. Those
guidelines are intended to keep health care costs down by regulating the
number and cost of new facilities.

    On Wednesday, some of the board's eight members expressed concerned
about Mercy's system of hospitals. Mercy Alliance Inc. is the parent
company of Mercy Health System, which operates 49 facilities in 21
Illinois communities. Mercy directly employs all the physicians and
specialists who practice there.

    Others were concerned the hospital didn't propose at least 100
medical-surgical beds -- the minimum by state standards for establishing a
new full-service hospital in the area. Mercy also proposed a hospital in
an area, fast-growing McHenry County, that has too many licensed beds
already, according to state calculations.

    It appeared the proposal would be turned down again until board
chairman Thomas Beck signaled his support.

    Also supporting the proposal was Stuart Levine.

    Levine and Beck are the only two members who have served on the board
before the election of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

    In the middle of the vote, the roll call was halted as Beck and
Levine whispered to each other. Levine then approached Dr. Imad
Alamanseer, who had voted "pass" instead of "yes" or "no." After another
whispered conversation between Levine and Alamanseer, Alamanseer changed
his "pass" to "yes," providing the vote needed to pass the project.

    Asked after the meeting about what happened, Alamanseer said, "I was
convinced that there was merit to the project; I just wanted to see how
the others would view the project."

    Another board member, Pamela Orr, who's new to her post, left the
meeting during discussion of the Crystal Lake project. When she returned,
she decided to pass on the Crystal Lake vote.

    The overall vote crystallized competing philosophies on the board.

    The board's assistant legal counsel, David Carvalho, has tried to
push the new board members toward a strict reading of state regulations,
asking the board members to adhere to existing standards and avoid
approving projects that do not meet those standards.

    Carvalho said approving new facilities in areas where too many
licensed beds already exist is unfair to those health care facilities who
"sit on the sidelines" waiting to propose projects until existing beds are

    "It makes it difficult for the board going forward," Carvalho said.

    Beck and Levine said they disagree and value the board's freedom.

    During the meeting, the two joked about "the old days" when they
approved projects bearing all negative staff recommendations and turned
down projects that met each and every criterion.

    "You never know what we're going to do," Beck said.

    Sources said parties with projects that come before the board are
concerned Beck and Levine -- a politically connected member who formerly
served on the Illinois Gaming Board -- will take control and leave board
decisions vulnerable to lobbyists.

    Political powerbrokers including Jeff Ladd and David Wilhelm are
representing some of the major players with desires to build hospitals in
affluent, high-growth areas.

    Also Wednesday, Beck announced the board's newest member will be
Bernard Weiner, who has previously served on the Health Facilities
Planning Board with Beck and Levine. He's been a contributor to the
campaigns of Republicans Lee Daniels and George Ryan.

    The power balance on the board is particularly crucial because four
more hospital proposals are pending and the board is in the midst of
rewriting its rules and standards.

    Naperville-based Edward Hospital's plan for Plainfield, denied on a
7-to-1 vote, and Adventist Health System's plan for Bolingbrook, denied by
unanimous vote, can be brought back to the board for reconsideration.

    The proposals by St. Francis Hospital to build a new hospital at
LaGrange Road and 171st Street and by Advocate to build a new hospital at
LaGrange Road and 179th Street will be considered at the board's June 16
meeting in Chicago.


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