Illinois Hospitals Have A Patchwork System For Transferring COVID-19 Patients. Some State Lawmakers Say That Should Change.

A patchwork system of hospitals
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
A patchwork system of hospitals
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

Illinois Hospitals Have A Patchwork System For Transferring COVID-19 Patients. Some State Lawmakers Say That Should Change.

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Some Illinois lawmakers are calling for the state to coordinate transferring COVID-19 patients between hospitals, and demanding more transparency from medical centers to know which ones actually have beds available.

“The state must do better,” said State Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Democrat who represents some West Side communities hit especially hard during the pandemic.

Ford is among some lawmakers who are speaking out on the heels of a WBEZ investigation that revealed a patchwork system for transferring patients that has left some hospitals scrambling, usually the ones with the least amount of resources — and typically treating patients who are dying most of COVID-19, African Americans and Latinos.

In Chicago, there’s no agency coordinating how patients move from one hospital to another. City and state public health officials charged with leading the response to the pandemic don’t have the power to force hospitals to take transfers. And a statewide portal that hospitals are supposed to enter data into every day about their ability to treat patients doesn’t paint a complete picture.

Beds can be filled up by the time a packed hospital calls in desperate need for some. And whether or not a hospital can accept a transfer is more complicated than if a bed is available. It’s also about whether there are enough doctors, nurses and others to treat more patients, and if they have enough supplies, like masks, gowns and lifesaving ventilators.

In Chicago, that’s led to some overwhelmed hospitals calling around for hours and leaning on relationships to find open beds in other hospitals, if they can find any.

“You’ve identified something that should have been more transparent a long time ago,” said State Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat who represents portions of the West Side and western suburbs. “If you’re a hospital that does very well, you’re really not in a position of wanting to take patients that are considered a higher risk of death. It creates more liability issues on your part. You’re wanting to not inherit that challenge. That whole transfer of patient issue … that’s something that’s been going on for decades. I know that there’s clearly a lot of different layers to look at, and it’s very important that we figure out what’s the best way to address these critical issues.”

In Chicago, public health officials hope to launch a portal that would show in real time where hospital beds are available. Now, hospitals manually enter this type of information into a statewide portal typically once a day. Ford said he wants that data hub to be implemented statewide.

Ford also wants hospitals that reject transfer patients because of the type of insurance they have to face “substantial fines and penalties.”

State Rep. Tom Demmer, the lead House Republican on a legislative group that focuses on issues related to Medicaid health insurance for low-income and disabled people, said the patient transfer issue is “definitely a concern to me. I think the concept of having special oversight or other policies in play during a pandemic makes sense.”

Demmer, who represents parts of north central Illinois, said lawmakers who have been involved with health care issues have shared anecdotes, raising issues that the General Assembly more broadly will likely need to discuss. Consider them lessons learned to better prepare for future outbreaks, including COVID-19 patient transfers, he said.

“I think it’s an important question to know – now that we have our experience under our belts, how are we planning for potentially a next wave?” asked State House Majority Leader Greg Harris, a Democrat who represents communities on the North Side.

Harris said he talked to Illinois Deputy Gov. Sol Flores about hospital transfers, and it’s among items Gov. JB Pritzker’s office plans to review.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Pritzker said his office is working on solutions to “challenges” the pandemic created but didn’t go into specifics.

“We will work with lawmakers and stakeholders to address the stressors on the system and propose solutions as we prepare for a possible resurgence of the virus,” the statement said.

State lawmakers aren’t due back in Springfield until after the November elections, but they have participated in meetings to discuss issues, such as the state budget.

“I would probably like to see a state agency coordinate this during times of … some kind of public health emergency,” Demmer said of transfers. “And have some enforcement ability to have patients be transferred or be matched up with the appropriate resources and level of care that they need, regardless of whether they have insurance or not.”

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