Doctors And Lawmakers Protest Mercy Hospital’s Closure — But Options Are Limited

Mercy closure protest
Doctors, activists and lawmakers on Wednesday gathered to protest the closure of Mercy Hospital on Chicago's South Side. The hospital is due to close next year because of financial struggles. Kristen Schorsch / WBEZ
Mercy closure protest
Doctors, activists and lawmakers on Wednesday gathered to protest the closure of Mercy Hospital on Chicago's South Side. The hospital is due to close next year because of financial struggles. Kristen Schorsch / WBEZ

Doctors And Lawmakers Protest Mercy Hospital’s Closure — But Options Are Limited

It was part rally, part reunion near Mercy Hospital in Chicago on Wednesday as dozens of doctors who trained there, Mercy employees and several lawmakers called for saving the historic medical facility from closing in the middle of a pandemic.

They crowded corners and chanted: “Save Mercy Now.” They held signs that read: “Mercy For Mercy,” “Black Healthcare Matters” and “We Need Mercy Stat.” And, for a few minutes, the crowd marched on the sidewalk as ambulances passed to and from the hospital that loomed in the background.

“I’ve worked in a lot of different hospitals, and this is a place where it’s a huge need for the community,” said Dr. Marcus Wong, who came to the rally from Indiana. He spent three years training at Mercy to become an emergency medicine physician. “It’s not like people can simply go to another hospital.”

Mercy treats mainly low-income and elderly people of color — not the type of patients wealthier hospitals want to treat, but those getting sick and dying most of COVID-19. The historic hospital in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood just south of downtown is nearly 170 years old and was the first chartered teaching hospital in the city. It’s a staple for Black Chicagoans, and for Cantonese-speaking residents in nearby Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods.

But after years of losing money and treating patients who need expensive hospital care, Mercy announced in late July that it plans to close the hospital and its outpatient clinics between February and May. Mercy said it’s losing about $4 million a month and needs at least $100 million over five years in capital investments.

Instead, Mercy said it plans to open a new outpatient center that would focus on preventative and urgent care to keep people out of pricey hospitals. Closing hospitals with lots of vacant beds in favor of providing cheaper outpatient care has been a national trend.

One after another, a Chicago alderman, a few state lawmakers, preachers, U.S. Congressman Danny Davis and former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn took turns at a podium Wednesday, as the rally behind them quieted to hear the speakers.

State Rep. Theresa Mah’s district is just a few blocks west from Mercy, and she said many of the people she represents get their care there.

“The nearest full-service hospitals are on average five to 10 miles away,” said Mah, D-Chicago. “Now five miles might not sound like much to you, but for the population I represent — Chinese immigrants, many of whom are limited English proficient; senior citizens who are transportation-challenged; and low-income families that rely on the services of this community safety net hospital — five miles may as well be a different planet.”

State Rep. Lamont Robinson’s district includes Mercy. He ticked off a host of issues already plaguing Black communities, including higher death rates for Black mothers and their babies.

“We cannot say Black Lives Matter, and then allow Mercy Hospital to close and reduce health care resources on the South Side of Chicago,” said Robinson, D-Chicago.

He chided Mercy’s parent, Trinity Health, for not preventing Mercy from closing.

But Robinson was among state lawmakers who did not support a merger Mercy proposed with three other South Side hospitals. They planned to build one to two new hospitals and several outpatient centers that would ultimately replace their aging existing hospitals. The estimated cost was $1.1 billion, and they wanted the state to cover about $520 million of the tab.

Robinson said Mercy didn’t provide enough details, like where the new proposed hospital would be located. But on Wednesday, he called for the hospitals to come together once again, or even for another hospital to take over Mercy.

After the press conference, Robinson acknowledged lawmakers could not stop Mercy from closing. State regulators can’t either. But he said he hopes to slow down the closure.

He said Mercy has received at least three offers to buy the hospital. Mercy has previously told state regulators there were no interested buyers.

A spokeswoman for Mercy declined to comment to WBEZ on the potential buyers. But in a statement, a different spokeswoman said the hospitals involved in the merger that failed to get state lawmakers’ support gave lawmakers a five-year business plan with extensive details. The other hospitals involved were South Shore, St. Bernard and Advocate Trinity.

The hospitals “made clear to Springfield leaders from the start that action would be needed by May of 2020 in order to prevent potential closures — and, more importantly, to begin to transform the system of health on the South Side to better align with patient needs,” the statement said.

Those needs are more access to outpatient care, the statement said, to prevent people from getting sick in the first place.

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