'People will die': Chicago could lose an essential hospital in the middle of the pandemic

Closing Mercy hospital, an oasis in a medical desert on the South Side, would worsen racial health disparities, activists say

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Activists, medical professionals and community members in Chicago are rallying against the looming closure of Mercy hospital – the oldest healthcare facility in the city, and one of its most storied – warning that its closure would drastically worsen racial health disparities in the city.

Trinity Health, which has owned the facility for eight years, plans to shutter it later this winter or early spring, citing financial struggles. But organizers here say that its closure, particularly against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis, will exacerbate existing healthcare inequalities in the city, and have called on officials to intervene on behalf of the hospital, an oasis in the medical desert of the predominantly Black and brown South Side.

“We’re asking that the governor, as well as the mayor, do what needs to be done to make absolutely sure that this hospital stays open to service the Black community,” Robert Jones, the pastor of nearby Mt Carmel Baptist church, said at a downtown demonstration earlier this week. “If this hospital closes, people will die.”

Located in Bronzeville, a neighborhood once known as the city’s Black Metropolis, Mercy was founded in 1852, and is regarded as a safety net hospital, serving mostly Black, poor and elderly populations. But the Michigan-based Trinity, which operates nearly 100 healthcare centers nationwide, announced over the summer that it plans to close Mercy after a merger plan with other South Side hospitals earlier this year fell through and it couldn’t find a buyer for the 292-bed facility.

If the closure is approved by the Illinois health facilities and services review board when it meets on Monday 15 December, Mercy could shutter as soon as February.

Activists and South Side residents rallied ahead of next week’s fateful board meeting, staging daily demonstrations – including a vigil at Mercy and a protest near city hall downtown – to call attention to the healthcare disparities the shutdown would exacerbate and to demand the Illinois governor, JB Pritzker, and the Chicago mayor, Lori Lightfoot, step in.

“Leaders need to lead,” Shannon Bennett, the executive director of the grassroots Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said at the downtown rally Monday afternoon. “We are calling you out.”

Adding to the outrage is the timetable of the closure, which would come as the coronavirus continues to ravage the United States.

“The timing is awful,” the civil rights icon Jesse Jackson, who participated in a Save Mercy demonstration in early December, told the Guardian by phone, calling on leaders to “have mercy on Mercy”.

Activists and South Side residents have staged daily demonstrations to protest the closure of Mercy hospital.
Activists and South Side residents have staged daily demonstrations to protest the closure of Mercy hospital. Photograph: Eric Lutz

In statements to the Chicago Sun-Times after the first day of “Mercy Week,” a spokesperson for Lightfoot said the mayor recognizes “the important role our safety net hospitals play in our healthcare system”, and a spokesperson for Pritzker said his office had urged Trinity to “rethink the decision to close Mercy hospital”.

“The state stands ready and willing to work with them to avoid closure,” Pritzker’s office said.

But activists and healthcare workers say more needs to be done, especially during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the Black, poor and elderly Chicagoans who Mercy serves.

“They are signing off on the deaths of the community if they close this hospital,” Dr Anudeep Dasaraju, a medical resident at University of Illinois-Chicago who works in Mercy’s emergency room, said at the Monday demonstration outside the Thompson Center, home to Illinois state government offices.

“Leaders who might be able to persuade Trinity to keep Mercy open, or sell it to someone who will keep it open, need to step up and act now before it’s too late,” the Illinois state representative Lamont Robinson, whose district includes the hospital, wrote in a Sun-Times op-ed Wednesday.

The governor’s office did not return the Guardian’s request for comment.

“The decision to discontinue services at Mercy hospital was not an easy one,” a statement from Trinity Health reads. “We hope leaders across the city and state will take the bold steps necessary to transform our system of care to better meet the needs of South Side patients. We are committed to being a part of that transformation.”

The impending closure of Mercy hospital is a symptom of a larger problem facing healthcare access, both in Chicago and nationwide, with the rise of medical deserts in cities and rural areas.

In Chicago alone, more than a dozen hospitals have closed over the past two decades. Four of them had been on the predominantly Black and brown South and West sides of the city, according to an ABC 7 Chicago analysis this fall.

According to Margie Schaps, the executive director of the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group, the problem in Chicago isn’t necessarily a lack of hospitals in the city – it’s that it “just [doesn’t] have them in the right places”.

“It’s always on the backs of Black and brown communities that we close services,” Schaps said in a phone interview, “and that sends a real message about who cares about them.”

The increasing privatization of the healthcare system in recent decades, following Reagan-era cuts to the social safety net, has helped give rise to a trend of closures nationwide, Dr Elizabeth Tung, an assistant professor of medicine at University of Chicago, told the Guardian.

Mercy is “one closure of hundreds, if not more, that have taken place over the last decade or so across the country”, said Tung, who studies race and wealth inequalities in healthcare.

“Those closures disproportionately happen in the communities of most need,” Tung continued, emphasizing that Black communities have been hit especially hard. “The financial incentives are misaligned.”

In addition to systemic issues with health financing, Schaps said that poor planning by leaders in the state of Illinois has created medical deserts, which not only leave residents with poor access to crucial services, but also without the economic and employment opportunities hospitals can provide an area.

“What does that tell a community when an anchor institution closes?” Schaps said.

If Mercy closes, Trinity says it plans to open an outpatient center in Bronzeville, as does Northwestern Medicine.

“It’s better than nothing,” said Tung. “But certainly it doesn’t address the vacuum of [other needs] in the community.”


Eric Lutz in Chicago

The GuardianTramp

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