By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Mercyhealth’s request to discontinue 70 medical and surgical beds at its Rockton Avenue campus was approved Tuesday by a state board.
But the measure passed only after initial denial, some brief confusion and then a vote to reconsider.
The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board voted 6-0 in favor of allowing the discontinuation. That means Mercyhealth can immediately close the beds and consolidate inpatient services at its Riverside Boulevard campus while continuing to offer an array of outpatient services on Rockton Avenue on the city’s west side.
“This is not a step to stop providing services at the Rockton Avenue campus,” Mark Silberman, an attorney for Mercyheath, told the state board before its vote. “To the contrary this has been done to ensure continued access to care.
“Significant time, effort and resources have been spent to ensure that both campuses remain available to provide care for this community.”
The board initially voted 5-2 in favor of allowing the discontinuation. However, that was short of the six affirmative votes needed for the measure to pass. Board members Kenneth Burnett and Antoinette Hardy-Waller voted against the measure. Board members Sandra Martell and Gary Kaatz recused themselves from the vote because of their local ties.
Hardy-Waller said removing the beds would harm the safety-net services of an area where the majority of its residents are minorities or earn low incomes.
“At the end of the day, the impact is on the community, the people,” she said. “As we know in health care, the mission of all of our organizations is to care for the most vulnerable populations that we serve, and I have not been convinced that that has been the priority here.”
Mercyhealth immediately asked the board to reconsider its vote after the denial, saying members had not correctly weighed whether they met the statutory requirements of the request.
After discussing whether the revote was appropriate, board members opted to do so. Burnett changed his vote to a “yes,” although he said he was doing so with “great reservations.”
Hardy-Waller abstained from the second vote. She said the revote should have been delayed to allow time to further review the language and the law for clarity.
Related: City leaders, Mercyhealth trade jabs at hearing over moving inpatient services from west Rockford
Before the vote, Mercyhealth stressed that it has one hospital divided into two campuses and that its request to end inpatient services on Rockton Avenue was critical to its financial viability and ability to provide the highest level of care.
Doctors and administrators who spoke to the board said the Rockton Avenue campus is unable to handle complicated medical and surgery patients, which must be sent to Riverside Boulevard – the site of its half-billion dollar 563,000-square-foot hospital facility.
“When these complicated patients come to the Rockton Avenue site for care, precious treatment time is wasted while they are transferred to our Riverside site where the needed specialists and equipment are located,” Mercyhealth CEO Javon Bea told the board.
The Rockton Avenue site will continue to house the majority of outpatient departments, Bea said, such as its outpatient radiation and chemotherapy cancer services, gastroenterology suites for procedures like endoscopies and colonoscopies, and outpatient surgeries such as orthopedic surgery.
“The truth is we do not have room for these services at our Riverside site so the idea that we are closing our Rockton Avenue site is absurd,” Bea told the board. “We need our Rockton Avenue site to remain open, plain and simple.”
There will be 50 doctors who remain based at Rockton Avenue, Bea said, and there will be no staff reduction.
He said the company’s $100.65 million invested in Rockton Avenue over the past six years shows its commitment to the west side.
The board’s decision comes after city leaders, including Mayor Tom McNamara, had fought to convince the state to deny the request. Opponents of the health care company’s proposed consolidation said vulnerable west-side residents would lose needed care from a side of town that is often underserved.
“In making the vote, nearly every member commented that they had great reservations about the decision, but were bound by statute to vote yes since the organization had submitted the appropriate paperwork,” McNamara said in a statement. “I’m glad that the members were concerned about this closure impacting the most vulnerable in our community. I am too. I will continue to fight for what is right for our residents and for our community.”
Mercyhealth said it has lost more than $127 million over the past three years between the two campuses, largely over issues of unpaid Medicare, and it must consolidate services to remain viable.
“We cannot afford two full trauma centers for one hospital,” Bea said. “In order to continue to offer high quality services to the community, we need to continue to allocate our available resources to inpatient services at Riverside and outpatient at Rockton Avenue”