Advocate Health Care’s plan to convert Bethany Hospital on the West Side into a long-term care facility may have been dealt a death blow Tuesday when the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board unanimously rejected the health care system’s request to terminate Bethany’s obstetrics and mental health clinics.

The planning board’s decision was hailed as a victory by community residents and activists who opposed Advocate’s conversion plan.

“The community came together and stood together to fight for what we need, which is adequate community health care,” said Amorita Hudson, a member of the South Austin Coalition (SACCC) and the West Side Health Crisis Coalition.

About 200 community residents and organizations, including SACCC, ACORN (The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), and The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, attended Tuesday’s hearing, which took place downtown.

The organizations held a press conference before the hearing started. Those in attendance cheered after hearing the planning board’s decision.

Bethany Hospital President Lena Dobbs-Johnson said the board’s decision was “a surprise.”

The hearing, which took place at a Holiday Inn meeting room downtown near the Merchandise Mart, lasted about three hours.

Advocate officials testified that the 85-year-old Bethany Hospital had lost millions in recent years, and that surrounding West Side hospitals, such as John Stroger Hospital and Mt. Sinai, could serve the community’s health needs. Board members, on the other hand, expressed concerns about the community’s access to those hospitals. Bethany, located at 3435 W. Van Buren at Homan, serves North Lawndale, West and East Garfield and part of Austin.

Board members questioned whether surrounding hospitals would be able to absorb Bethany’s patients. They were also concerned about what would happen to Bethany’s mostly low-income and poor patients, and those without health care, if the hospital’s primary care services were terminated.

Tony Mitchell, Advocate’s vice president of communications, said Tuesday the board’s decision would not deter Advocate from pursuing its conversion plan for Bethany.

Oak Brook-based Advocate announced in January its plan to convert Bethany into an 85-bed acute care facility. Advocate officials estimate that Bethany has lost more than $50 million annually since 1997.

But Hudson and other community activists believe Advocate had long planned to convert Bethany, having spent money upgrading some of the system’s suburban hospitals instead of the one on the West Side. Advocate officials have disputed those claims, but officials have said money was spent elsewhere because Bethany Hospital was among the newer hospitals built, and therefore not in need of major upgrades.

“They never intended for the hospital to turn around,” said Hudson. “They were already planning on doing this.”

Advocate last week looked to turn the tide of public discourse with an event at the hospital on June 1. With a gospel choir, singers and a DJ, Advocate kicked off their “We Believe in Bethany” campaign to officially announce the launch of a $14 million community fund. The fund would be spent on services at various community health centers on the West Side, according to Advocate.

A total of $1 million, split among community health agencies, would be spent each year for 14 years, according to Advocate. They had originally offered $10 million for the fund. A Fund Advisory Council of community leaders, clergy and Advocate representatives would oversee the allocation of the funds.

Last Thursday’s event also drew protests from some in the community. Hudson said the fund couldn’t replace a full service hospital for the communities Bethany serves.

“If you do two or three health fairs a year and put out some brochures, that’s not enough,” she said. “[Advocate] said they have reached out to the community, but they have not accessed the community at all.”