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Alivio Medical Center at 966 W 21st St in Pilsen, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. The health provider for many migrants is furloughing workers.

Anthony Vazquez

A Pilsen medical center that treats migrants is furloughing workers

Dozens of employees are taking a 20% pay cut at Alivio Medical Center, a key health care provider for migrants and asylum seekers on the West Side.

Those getting their hours reduced from 40 to 32 a week range from executives to medical assistants, nurses and front-desk staff, spokeswoman Terri Rivera said in a recent interview. She has since left Alivio. Doctors were spared from the cut so they can take care of more patients to generate more revenue, Rivera said, though they could be trying to do so with less help. For example, she said a medical assistant now might share their time between two doctors instead of one.

“No services have changed or hours changed,” Rivera emphasized.

She added that no one has been laid off, but also confirmed some employees have quit over the furloughs. She would not say how many total people have been furloughed, but said Alivio still has about 250 employees across seven clinics.

SEIU Healthcare represents about 40 Alivio employees who have been furloughed, said Anne Igoe, vice president for health systems and hospitals at the union. They include medical assistants and people who work the front desk or answer phones at the call center.

“This is incredibly traumatic (for the employees),” Igoe said.

Some employees are working the same number of days with fewer hours, making it harder to get a second job or pick up hours somewhere else, Igoe said. Many of the workers make low wages and live in one-income households, she said.

“They’re depending on their checks,” Igoe said. “Our staff are just going to be stretched to care for even more patients.”

Like many community health centers, Alivio treats a large portion of low-income and uninsured patients. On its website, Alivio harkens back to why the health center was founded in 1989: to fill a void by providing medical care for an underserved population of immigrants in the Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards neighborhoods. Historically these patients have had little access to medical care given language and cultural barriers and fear of seeking medical care because of their immigration status, Alivio explained.

Lately, many migrants arriving in Chicago have come to rely on Alivio’s clinic in Pilsen. This area is home to the largest city-run shelter where about 2,500 people are staying. As of Jan. 19, about half were children, according to data shared by the city.

This shelter is where five-year-old Jean Carlos “Jeremías” Martinez Rivero, fell ill and died. In the wake of his death, physicians at Alivio’s Pilsen clinic told the Sun-Times migrants had been coming to them for medical care since they were camping out at police stations last year and when volunteers ran a separate shelter in Pilsen.

Alivio providers said the number of migrant patients took off in October, after the city opened the shelter.

The Alivio clinic is one of the few where Jaime Groth Searle, an Archer Heights mother who has been volunteering with migrants outside the city-run Pilsen shelter, recommends to the people she helps.

The founder of the Southwest Collective — a group of mothers who advocate for their neighborhoods — called the clinic a “godsend.”

“In our neighborhoods in particular, they handle a lot of folks who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to be seen,” Groth Searle said. “Not just people seeking asylum, but also undocumented people.”

Asked what it would mean for migrants at the shelter to have less access to providers at the nearby Alivio clinic, she said: “I don’t even want to think about it.”

Rivera said a host of factors fueled the furloughs, including supplies becoming more expensive, COVID-19 money that is running out and treating fewer patients. Alivio’s CEO Esther Corpuz was not available for an interview, nor was anyone who could discuss the health center’s financials.

But Igoe said information Alivio shared with the union shows that patient visits have increased since at least the summer and as of November surpassed 6,000 visits that month.

And compared with other community health centers, Alivio is reimbursed far less for the behavioral health care it provides to low-income or disabled patients who have Medicaid health insurance, data show. This year, Alivio is getting paid back about $54 per visit — the lowest reimbursement rate for community health centers in the state. Other clinics are paid back between $72 to $83 per visit.

For medical care, Alivio’s reimbursement is far higher, around $188 per patient visit.

In an email, a spokeswoman with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, which oversees Medicaid, said reimbursement rates are based on clinics’ cost reports they submit to the state and adjusted for a measure of inflation. All community health centers in Illinois have received additional rate hikes since 2021, the spokeswoman wrote.

Rivera said Alivio has made efforts to cut costs, including renegotiating contracts, and plans to ramp up marketing. She said the furloughs began recently and will last until June 30, the end of Alivio’s fiscal year.

Ollie Idowu, president and CEO of the Illinois Primary Health Care Association, which lobbies on behalf of 54 community health centers in the state, said these clinics are financially struggling across Illinois. It’s not just that COVID money that paid for vaccinations and testing is running dry, but also the instability of federal funds flowing in makes it hard for clinics to plan for the future, Idowu said.

“It keeps me up at night,” he said of more furloughs or layoffs happening at clinics like Alivio around the state.

Kristen Schorsch covers health and Cook County government for WBEZ. Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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