West Suburban Hospital officials promised Tuesday that a proposed Neighborhood Advisory Committee of residents would have an active role in expansion plans for the Austin Boulevard hospital that services both Oak Park and the West Side.

Residents attending the Tuesday night meeting at the hospital, however, are skeptical that the committee will be nothing more than a diversion while actual plans are considered without them. West Suburban, located at 3 Erie Court in Oak Park, has been under fire from residents and community activists for the last year, following its acquisition by Resurrection Health Care.

Activists charge that uninsured care has suffered and hospital charges have jumped since the acquisition. Hospital officials disagree, arguing that the institution has not cut services or inflated costs, and, according to West Sub CEO Jay Kruezer, spent more than $30 million last year in free care.

The latest round of criticism stems from the hospital’s plan to expand their current 90-year-old facility. More than $3 million in hospital repairs have occurred in the last two years, but the additional plan calls for expanding the hospital’s Emergency Department, increasing waiting room space and upgrading medical equipment. Officials, though, have not ruled out building these additions on surrounding properties. Many residents at Tuesday’s meeting worried that the new facility would be built on existing residential and historic properties west of the hospital.

“Clearly that side of the property is open; it’s a side that’s in play,” said Thomas Coffey, CEO of The Haymarket Group, a public affairs firm hired by West Sub to facilitate community discussion. “That’s why it’s important that neighborhoods participate in this process from the very beginning to try and flesh out what the options are.”

Residents also fear increased noise from blaring sirens, potentially hazardous waste and trash, and a reduction in property values as a result of the expansion. Preliminary meetings with architects and hospital officials have already taken place, but no official design plans for any new additions have been made as of yet, said Kruezer.

He did point out that some suggestions were not practical, such as relocating the ER to a second floor or lower level, or building a separate location offsite. Emergency Rooms, he said, are mandated to be at ground level and in close proximity to x-ray labs, operating rooms and Intensive Care Units.

Kruezer added that the hospital understands residents’ concerns and wants to work with the neighborhood, which is the purpose of creating a Neighborhood Advisory Committee. But just what the committee will do and who will sit on it was unclear.

Leaving Austin out?

With West Sub bordering Oak Park and Austin, some felt that Austin residents are being left out of the process.

“This advisory committee has no real power,” said Bob Vondrasek, executive director of the South Austin Coalition, who along with other members of the Oak Park/Austin Health Alliance (OPAHA) attended Tuesday night’s meeting. “It seems to me that a neighborhood advisory committee also ought to be a committee that includes patients and people concerned about health care in both Oak Park and Austin, and other areas.”

Kruezer said the committee would include Austin residents.

Few disagreed that the hospital is in need of major improvements.

The hospital serves an average of 50,000 ER patients a year in a facility original built to serve 40,000. The current facility, first built in 1914, also was not designed for modern medical equipment.

Since acquiring West Sub in March 2004, Resurrection has committed $72 million to improving the hospital, said Kruezer.

“Prior to Resurrection coming in, we suffered some financial hardships,” he said. “We just didn’t have the funds to keep our systems up-to-date. We want to respect the quality and characteristics of the neighborhood because it’s our neighborhood too.”

? For more information about the Neighborhood Advisory Committee and upcoming meetings, call Molly Gaus, Marketing and Public Relations manager for West Suburban Hospital, at 708/736-6096.

CONTACT tdean@wjinc.com