Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: State’s hospital infrastructure lacking, but who will invest?

There are 20,987 medical and surgical beds in Illinois hospitals and another 3,535 in intensive care units. 

Few had reason to consider those numbers before they became key components of coronavirus mitigation efforts, but the extent to which those beds are occupied has become part of the daily reporting cycle over the past seven months.

Now two more numbers: 40 and 24. Both represent the amount of the state’s hospitals meeting the Department of Healthcare and Family Services’ definition of a “safety net” facility, one providing care regardless of a patient’s insurance, immigration or financial status. The figure was 40 in 2014; it’s down to 24 in 2020.

This and other information was central to Monday’s joint hearing of the Senate Public Health and Human Services committees. According to a Capitol News Illinois report, experts testified about insufficient preventive care options as well as “massive disparities in outcomes based on race and income,” per CNI’s Raymon Troncoso.

A 40% drop in these facilities over six years isn’t shocking. They aren’t moneymakers, and necessary government funding has lagged. That health care in America often is filtered through the prism of profit is its own challenge. But if we’re going to look at hospitals as economic engines, it’s worth noting the 24 remaining safety net sites employ more than 25,000 people.

Ben Lazare, an Association of Safety Net Community Hospitals lobbyist, told the committee audience the facilities he represents “are the largest employers in areas of the state with the highest unemployment rates. … These are high quality jobs and when safety nets do leave if they are forced to close, they leave craters that are absolutely devastating to those communities.”

Much of the federal health care debate focuses on affordability — premiums, copays, reimbursements, prescriptions — so it’s comforting to know people in Illinois also are focusing on the vital issue of access. Even the best medical insurance is worthless if you can’t get to a doctor.

As in many societal issues, working to make sure people have sufficient income is the key building block. IDHFS officials cited a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study stating socioeconomic factors impact 40% of a person’s health status, while access to and quality of care affect 20% (the other 30 are behaviors like diet and exercise).

But whether elected officials perceive hospitals as jobs engines or frontline community resources, it’s clear investment would yield worthwhile returns. The private sector may be disinterested, which means either making these hospitals plausibly lucrative or directly applying public resources, profit notwithstanding.

If you get sick, where would you go? Think about how many Illinoisans can’t answer that question. Pandemic or not, no one should be without a safety net.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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