ECONOMIC ENGINE: A room within Loretto Hospital's Addiction Center. | Chicago Velo

George M. Miller, who became Loretto Hospital’s first African-American CEO and president in November 2017, unveiled an ambitious vision for his employer’s future during a service at Austin’s Third Unitarian Church, 301 N. Mayfield Ave., on Feb. 25. 

Miller said that the hospital will introduce a number of new services, including opening an MRI unit within the hospital that will allow patients weighing up to 600 pounds to be serviced, a new 16-unit dialysis center, palliative care services and pain management services. Miller said he and his staff are also working to include the hospital in clinical trials and to transform the hospital into a teaching hospital.

In recent months, the Illinois has been looking at revamping the way Medicaid funds are distributed. Any change will have a greater impact on “safety net” hospitals like Loretto. Miller said any reduction of funds would force it to cut services and capacity. 

Miller, however, emphasized that for the moment he doesn’t foresee things getting so bad that the hospital would have to close completely.

As Miller noted in his presentation, Loretto is not just a decades-old Austin institution. It’s the community’s largest non-governmental employer, with almost 600 workers and a budget of nearly $60 million.

“We are the economic engine of the Austin community,” he said. “More than half of our [employees] come from this area.”

Miller said that he wanted to “speak truth to power” and be upfront about the fact that Austin residents face healthcare disparities. The average life expectancy in the community is 20 years lower than in the Gold Coast neighborhood – which, as he emphasized several times, is only 20 minutes away. 

Lower income individuals have fewer healthcare resources, and the options they do have are more limited, since many private hospitals restrict how many Medicaid patients they see and what kind of services they provide for them. Miller cited Northwestern Hospital as an example. 

As a CEO, he said that he was looking to build on something that Loretto already does; instead of just treating medical issues, they want to address the causes of medical issues, such as diabetes.

“Our goal is to educate you, so you don’t get diabetes and you never need us,” he said. “We have many classes that help educate the public on how to eat well.”

Miller also said that the hospital will be doing more community outreach. The visit to the Third Unitarian Church was part of it. Loretto can lead the way in Austin by partnering with churches and other organizations, Miller said.

The hospital, which serves more than 39,000 patients a year, offers a number of services that many may not know about, including free transportation to and from Loretto, a men’s health program and an addiction center.

“One of the reasons why I do it is so you can tell us what your needs are,” Miller said.

He emphasized that the quality of care was paramount to him.

“If [patients] are not treated with dignity and respect, you can call me personally,” Miller said. “We have to treat everyone with love and service.”

Miller noted that his own personal phone number is posted in public areas throughout Loretto.

“I trust [the staff] understands, I don’t want to be called,” Miller quipped.

The CEO summarized Loretto’s services and highlighted some of the new services he’s either hoping to launch or is in the process of launching. Adding a dialysis unit, Miller said, was especially important due to inequity African-American community faces when it comes to kidney transplants.

“Forty percent of all people on dialysis are African-American, but we only get 2 percent of the kidney transplants,” he said.  

Miller said that he hopes to have the new unit up and running by the end of the year. 

Palliative care is care provided to patients facing serious, though not necessarily incurable, illnesses. The idea is to use care to reduce symptoms and try to help the patients and their families as much as possible. Miller said that this, along with pain management, is something that he is excited to be able to provide. 

When asked how the price of medical drugs has affected Loretto, Miller said only that he believed that drug prices were inflated. 

“That’s the truth — they are ripping us off,” Miller said, “Now, don’t tell the drug companies I said that.”

One more long-term goal is for Loretto to resume delivering babies, something the hospital stopped doing about five years ago due in part to the skyrocketing cost of malpractice insurance, Miller said.

Pointing to a picture of a homeless woman, the longtime hospital executive said, “We have to treat this woman the same as the president of the United States.”

While he said he hopes to bring that service back, he emphasized that the issues that caused the hospital to stop doing it, wouldn’t be easy to resolve.

“Unfortunately, in Illinois, the cost of malpractice insurance is through the roof,” he said, adding that the cuts in Medicaid reimbursements was another major factor. 

Medicaid reimbursements have become a major issue across the state and country. According to a Feb. 10 Associated Press report, the state lawmakers were negotiating with the Illinois Health and Hospital Association on how the state handles Medicaid reimbursements. 

The goal was to “update the distribution formula in response to federal pressure and make sure the safety net hospitals get a sufficient cut,” the reported explained.  

The federal government has been pushing states to “put Medicaid clients into privately run ‘managed care organizations’ where competition cuts costs,” which raised concerns from safety net hospitals, because reimbursements managed by those organizations can take months. With the medical costs rising, this development is something that safety net hospitals cannot afford.

In an interview conducted after his talk, Miller said that he shares those concerns.

“If they want to provide us with resources we need, you don’t reduce reimbursements, you grow them,” he said.

And if the reimbursements are cut?

“We will have to reduce services and not see as many patients,” Miller said, before reassuring people that, despite those challenges, Loretto was not in danger of closing.

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