Community Organizers Push For A Say In Mercy Hospital’s Future

A sign to save historic Mercy Hospital
Protestors gather outside of Loyola University Health Center on Dec. 8, 2020, to protest the closing of Mercy Hospital. Now organizers want a seat at the table deciding how the hospital to replace Mercy will be run. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
A sign to save historic Mercy Hospital
Protestors gather outside of Loyola University Health Center on Dec. 8, 2020, to protest the closing of Mercy Hospital. Now organizers want a seat at the table deciding how the hospital to replace Mercy will be run. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Community Organizers Push For A Say In Mercy Hospital’s Future

Community organizers who have spent months rallying to prevent Mercy Hospital on Chicago’s Near South Side from closing took a brief victory lap on Friday.

“We had a goal in mind to save this hospital, to force the current owners, Trinity Health Care, to sell the hospital before they closed it,” said Shannon Bennett, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and one of the organizers.

“I think we met that goal. I think we met that goal!” he shouted to applause from a small crowd gathered just beyond Mercy’s parking lot in Bronzeville.

The Chicago Health Equity Coalition, which is a mixture of community organizations and unions, called for a seat at the table as nonprofit Insight Chicago prepares to buy Mercy from Trinity. Insight, which is affiliated with a Flint, Mich.-based biomedical technology company, and Mercy announced the proposed deal this week.

And, in a new regulatory filing, Insight revealed it would buy Mercy for just $1. The company would no longer run Mercy as a Catholic hospital, and it would change the hospital’s name.

Insight does not plan to add or cut any services at Mercy, but would make changes after figuring out what the community needs, the application said.

“Importantly, Insight Chicago, Inc. recognizes that there is ample opportunity for reinvestment within the community and the facility,” the application said. “The Insight approach to healthcare is holistic and involves not only an emphasis on efficient hospital operations, but on providing the highest quality care for all patients regardless of their ability to pay.”

Insight’s plans for Mercy are of continued concern for the community coalition that fought to save it.

The coalition wants there to be representatives from the Bronzeville neighborhood on the new hospital’s board, and wants them to have voting power. Coalition members said that would help prevent them from being blindsided by sudden changes at the hospital, as they said they were last July when Mercy announced plans to close in 2021.

The organizers also want Mercy to remain a full-service hospital, and for Insight to restore services Mercy has cut or downgraded. For example, the emergency department is no longer accepting ambulances that typically bring the sickest or most severely injured patients, like heart attack and gunshot victims.

“We want to make sure we set the table,” Bennett said. “We’re not going to be on the menu.”

In a brief interview this week, Insight leaders said they plan to keep Mercy open and get input from surrounding neighborhoods to assess what kind of medical care they need.

Mercy filed for bankruptcy protection last month, and Trinity has been preparing to close Mercy by May 31, unless a deal can be reached with Insight and Illinois regulators approve the sale. Trinity says Mercy needs at least $100 million in upgrades, and that the safety net hospital treating the most vulnerable patients has been losing money for years.

Advocates including the coalition and a group of local lawmakers fought hard for months to preserve the historic hospital. Mercy is located in what many call a health care desert on the South Side. There are far fewer pharmacies, specialists and family doctors in the area compared to the more affluent North Side. As hospitals have either closed or cut back services over the years, Mercy is one of the remaining options for where pregnant women can deliver their babies on the South Side. The hospital also has one of the busiest emergency departments in Chicago, with more than 50,000 visits a year.

The majority of Mercy’s patients are Black, low-income and elderly — a particular concern during the COVID-19 pandemic for those who sought to keep the hospital open. Black and Latino Chicagoans have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Mercy also is the main hospital for Chinatown, a neighborhood just blocks away, and other nearby Chinese-speaking residents.

Illinois regulators in December rejected Trinity’s proposal to close Mercy, fearing that shuttering the hospital would make it harder for people to access medical care. A final vote is scheduled for March 16, though it’s not clear if Trinity still plans to pursue approval.

Insight is led by neurosurgeon Dr. Jawad Shah. In Michigan, Insight runs a hospital, a few outpatient surgery centers, a biomedical campus and a research division, among other facilities. The company also says it provides free year-round programming for kids five to 17 years old.

Representatives at Trinity declined an interview request about why Mercy would only be sold for $1. While the hospital is losing money, development is encroaching from the South Loop just blocks away.

In a statement, a spokeswoman said: “It was more important to Mercy to find someone willing to operate it as a hospital than to sell the real estate.”

State regulators have scheduled a public hearing on March 12 about Insight’s potential purchase of Mercy.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.