Leading Black Illinois Lawmakers Call For Nearly 3-Year Halt To Hospital Closures

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In December, protesters gathered outside Loyola University Health Center to object to the closing of Mercy Hospital. As a result of Mercy's attempts to close its doors, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus is supporting legislation that calls for a moratorium on hospital closures until Dec. 31, 2023. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
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In December, protesters gathered outside Loyola University Health Center to object to the closing of Mercy Hospital. As a result of Mercy's attempts to close its doors, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus is supporting legislation that calls for a moratorium on hospital closures until Dec. 31, 2023. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Leading Black Illinois Lawmakers Call For Nearly 3-Year Halt To Hospital Closures

Some Illinois lawmakers want to halt hospital closures for about three years, as historic Mercy Hospital on Chicago’s Near South Side tries to shut its doors.

The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus is behind the proposed legislation calling for a hospital closure moratorium until Dec. 31, 2023. The majority of Mercy’s patients are Black, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, Black and Latino Chicagoans have been disproportionately hit the hardest by the virus.

“Trinity Health argued that this closure would have no impact on health access but failed to understand the community’s needs,” according to the proposed legislation, referring to Mercy’s parent health system. “Closure of Mercy Hospital would only serve to create a health access desert and exacerbate existing health disparities.”

The proposed moratorium is part of a wide ranging piece of legislation to address racial inequities in health care. Besides the hospital closure moratorium, the bill also calls for setting aside at least $50 million a year for certain so-called safety net hospitals to preserve or beef up obstetric services, with the goal of reducing infant mortality rates. On the South Side, there are few places for women to give birth as hospitals have closed, or stopped delivering babies over the years. If Mercy closes, that’s one less option for pregnant women.

The bill also would require training for nurses on implicit bias when they renew their licenses, and dementia training for state adult protective services employees.

The leading co-sponsors of the legislation did not return messages to comment.

The proposed legislation comes as Mercy in Bronzeville works to wind down business. Illinois regulators last month unanimously rejected Mercy’s plans to close, fearing that it would hurt access for patients. Mercy treats mainly low-income and elderly patients. The hospital has one of the busiest emergency departments in Chicago, and it’s a major training ground for physicians.

Mercy argues that the hospital has been losing money and patients for years. As a safety net hospital, just over 40% of Mercy’s revenue comes from patients who have government-funded Medicaid health insurance, which is for people who are low-income and disabled, the most recent state records show. That insurance doesn’t fully reimburse hospitals for how much it costs to treat patients.

Mercy wants plans to close the hospital and its group of outpatient clinics by the end of May. Instead, Mercy would open a new big outpatient center on the South Side that would offer diagnostic testing, like a MRI, as well as connect patients with doctors at community clinics.

In a statement, a Mercy hospital spokeswoman said: “We continue to believe the best path forward for patients on the South Side is not a freeze of the status quo, but a bold move toward transformation that strengthens the entire network of safety net hospitals.”

There’s a public hearing on Tuesday about the proposed outpatient center.

It’s not clear how lawmakers could force hospitals to stay open, without, for example, giving them money to operate. There also could be patient safety issues if hospitals don’t have enough workers to treat patients, as nurses and doctors leave for new jobs.

Mercy has one more chance to convince regulators to allow the hospital to close. If not, the hospital could pursue closure in court.

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