Judging by the crowd at Oak Park’s Village Hall on Monday, you’d think there was a rock concert or baseball game in the council chambers.
But the standing-room-only gathering was for people to voice their opinions about the potential sale of Oak Park’s largest private employer, West Suburban Medical Center.
Droves of people showed up for the hearing Monday afternoon, with not an empty seat to be found. The bulk of the crowd, or at least the 35 or so who spoke, was made up of hospital employees and supporters wearing dark stickers marked “YES!” to the sale. Also there were supporters of a labor union wearing green stickers marked “Save our hospitals.”
Oak Park-based West Sub at 3 Erie St. also serves patients from Austin and is located on Austin Boulevard separating the two communities. Vanguard Health Systems ¡ª a for-profit company based in Nashville that owns 15 hospitals in four states ¡ª is looking to buy West Sub, along with its sister Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park. Chicago-based Resurrection Health Care owns the two hospitals and says it’s been forced to sell, with the two institutions losing a combined $166 million over the past five years.
But for Vanguard to close the deal, it first needs permission from the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board. And testimony at the hearing Monday will help the board to make its decisions, when it starts deliberating on June 8.
Those speaking or writing for the sale included Oak Park Village officials. On the other side: a labor union that’s trying to organize employees at the two hospitals, along with other community groups opposed to the sale, as it’s currently constituted.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (or AFSCME) Council 31 wants the review board to approve the sale, but only if Vanguard promises to keep the hospitals open for at least 10 years. Vanguard is only committing to two years, and to retaining employees for 60 days after the sale closes.
“This does not represent a serious commitment to our hospital,” said Kelly Beringer, a nurse at West Sub. “Two years is simply not enough time to assess current operations, identify and implement improvements and have a significant impact on profitability.”
AFSCME supporters pointed to Vanguard’s proposed purchase of the Detroit Medical Center system of seven hospitals. There, Vanguard has committed to keeping the hospitals open for 10 years and retaining employees at the same wages and benefits.
But Vanguard says the Detroit Medical Center purchase is a completely different package. Those hospitals have been running at a profit over the past seven years. Vanguard added that it was approached in order to bring its “significant access to capital” to help grow the system, according to materials passed out by Vanguard at the hearing.
In the proposed purchase from Resurrection, Vanguard is being brought in to keep the hospitals from closing. The company’s commitment in Detroit is also contingent on 15 years of tax breaks that it’s receiving from the state of Michigan, not the case when it buys the two local hospitals for a total of $41.45 million.
Robert Malgieri, a spokesman for AFSCME, says they feel the 10-year condition is fair, regardless of the circumstances.
“We just all along have been saying this is what the community wants and this is what the employees want,” he said.
The union doesn’t currently represent any employees at West Sub or Westlake. They’ve been attempting for more than six years to organize employees there. Resurrection has said previously that its employees aren’t interested, while AFSCME claims that workers have been intimidated and discouraged from organizing, a claim that Resurrection denies.
Patty Cormack, a nurse at West Sub, blasted the union group for getting involved in the transaction. “Let me be clear, my co-workers and I are not contingents of this union, nor have we ever supported any of their theatrical protests or slanderous propaganda,” she said.
Trip Pilgrim, chief development officer for Vanguard, emphasized that his company was approached about the purchase, and no other companies made an offer for the two local hospitals. He said Vanguard doesn’t buy hospitals to shut them down, and it has a “track record” of investing in its institutions. He acknowledged, however, that it will be difficult to turn West Sub and Westlake around.