Historic Mercy Hospital in Bronzeville, which is slated to close by May 31, is under a non-binding agreement to be sold.
That’s according to an email Mercy CEO Carol Schneider wrote to employees today and obtained by WBEZ.
Mercy’s owner, national Catholic hospital group Trinity Health, plans to sell Mercy on the Near South Side to Insight Chicago, a non-profit affiliated with a Flint, Mich.-based biomedical technology company.
“Insight Chicago will operate Mercy Hospital as a community hospital and will maintain ICU, Medical/Surgical, OB (non-high risk), Acute Mental Illness and Comprehensive Physical Rehabilitation categories of services,” Schneider wrote. “Insight Chicago will continue to operate Mercy Hospital’s ED as a basic Emergency Department.”
Mercy still plans to close until an official purchase agreement with Insight is signed, and Illinois regulators approve the sale. Mercy will negotiate the final terms of the deal over the coming weeks, Schneider wrote.
The announcement comes after months of intense opposition to the hospital’s expected closure from lawmakers, community organizers and employees at Mercy, which is the oldest chartered hospital in Chicago. Mercy is located in what is already a health care desert, they argue. The majority of Mercy’s patients are Black, low-income and elderly, and Mercy is the main hospital for nearby Chinatown and other local Chinese-speaking residents.
In a brief interview with WBEZ, Insight leaders said they know they have a hard task ahead — last month Mercy filed for bankruptcy protection — but that they have experience with treating many low-income patients like Mercy does.
“I think the big main point we want to understand between now and then is the community needs, build trust with the community, and I think to build trust we have to tell the truth and be sincere,” said Atif Bawahab, chief strategy officer at Insight. “And there’s a reality of the situation as to why Trinity is going bankrupt and why several safety net hospitals are struggling.”
The idea is to get input from the community about what Mercy could look like, then craft a full plan to share, Bawahab said.
Insight has one hospital, two surgery centers and a medical office building. The company specializes in neuroscience and orthopedics, and hopes to replicate that at Mercy. Insight CEO Dr. Jawad Shah is a neurosurgeon.
Insight started talking to Trinity a few months ago, after a late-night text from Shah to Bawahab about getting involved.
“Chicago is obviously one of the great cities in the world,” Shah said. “It’s a place where we think we can attract significant talent. … I think that it’s a great place where people would want to do research and do other things that we are passionate about, and we serve the community as well.”
Shah said he has family in Chicago, and he travels back and forth to see relatives.
“I remember going up and down the lake with a bicycle and then seeing the hospital after hearing about it (potentially closing),” Shah said. “I’m just trying to understand how is it that this thing can be defunct. It didn’t make sense to me given our own history of the turnarounds that we’ve done in several different situations. That also sparked our interest. But really in a nutshell, it just aligns with our mission.”
Trinity announced plans last July to close in 2021, saying that Mercy had been losing patients for years and the hospital needed at least $100 million in upgrades.
Mercy has since been winding down its business. Many employees have already left for new jobs or retired, and the hospital has cut some services. This week Mercy started issuing layoff notices to more than 160 doctors, nurses and other employees who work in obstetrics, behavioral health, rehabilitation, and at two of Mercy’s half a dozen outpatient clinics. Trinity plans to close all of Mercy’s clinics, too. Ultimately, more than 1,200 employees would lose their jobs.
A fierce fight to save Mercy
Since the announcement to close Mercy, community organizers formed the Chicago Health Equity Coalition and organized one event after another – news conferences, rallies that briefly shut down traffic in downtown Chicago, virtual town halls, letter-writing campaigns – to sound the alarm. They’ve blasted Trinity for what they described as a racist move to close a hospital in a largely Black community, and called on local politicians and leaders, from Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and even Cardinal Blase Cupich, to do more.
Illinois regulators in December unanimously rejected Trinity’s proposal to close Mercy, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Black and Latino Chicagoans.
That was just an initial vote, and Trinity was scheduled to go before the board later this month for a final vote to close. It’s not clear if that will still happen.
In December, regulators feared that closing Mercy would hurt access to medical care in an area where people are already typically sicker with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, compared to residents who live elsewhere in Chicago.
At the crux of the debate over Mercy’s proposed closure have been discussions about health disparities and systemic racism.
A new report underscores these disparities. On the South Side, there are “particularly alarming access gaps,” the study from the Health Care Council of Chicago found. Access to specialists, such as obstetricians who deliver babies and endocrinologists who manage diabetes, is “completely imbalanced” with the rest of Chicago.
On the South Side, there are 1,015 residents for every one specialist, compared to 353 residents for every one specialist on the North Side.
According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, on the Near South Side where Mercy is located, 45% of residents don’t have a family doctor to keep them healthy. That’s the highest rate of any community area in Chicago.
Mercy has one of the busiest emergency departments in the city, with more than 50,000 visits a year, as well as a sprawling presence in the community, with more than 300,000 outpatient visits a year, state public health data show.
Mercy also is a major training ground for future physicians, who say they learn how to treat the most vulnerable patients at the hospital.
The Health Care Council of Chicago report underscored just how vulnerable so-called safety net hospitals are – including Mercy. The study predicts that by 2024, a dozen hospitals on the South and West Sides could lose at least $1.8 billion combined, and potentially more could close.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.