Things are looking up at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, if judging based on the hospital’s very recent history. In the last year, Pipeline, the safety net hospital’s California-based parent company, has made some significant moves.
In December, Pipeline announced the promotion and hire of two new CEOs at both West Suburban and Weiss Memorial in Chicago. In the last three months, Pipeline has hired a new CEO of its own, brought on two new board members at West Suburban, and contracted with two Black-owned consulting firms to conduct marketing and outreach.
And in just this month, Pipeline has gotten an infusion of state funding that puts it on firmer footing than it was less than a year ago, when company executives were talking about possibly closing the hospital, whose patient population is 76 percent minority. Around 61 percent of the Oak Park hospital’s patients live on the West Side, around 29 percent are in poverty and 20 percent are uninsured, according to data the hospital provided.
“Frankly, I’ve been brought into this job to make sure our future is brighter than our past,” said new Pipeline CEO Andrei Soran in an interview Tuesday.
Soran struck a vastly different tone than the company had less than a year ago, when former Pipeline CEO Jim Edwards was pleading with state lawmakers for additional funding and other high profile Pipeline officials were in a war of words with some powerful local stakeholders.
“At this time, I must share with you that the financial situation at Weiss and West Suburban is dire,” Edwards wrote in August 2020 to Illinois Deputy Governor Sol Flores.
“Without dramatically enhanced and sustainable Illinois funding in the very near future, I am afraid that we will have no choice but to consider closing or downsizing one or both of these hospitals.”
The language seemed pulled from a familiar playbook. The company struck a very similar tone before closing Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park in 2019 — just several months after it purchased the hospital, along with Weiss and West Suburban, from Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare for $70 million.
Before the purchase, Edwards and other Pipeline principals, such as Dr. Eric Whitaker, had vowed to state regulators, media and lawmakers that they would continue operating Westlake as a safety net hospital.
Westlake filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2019. Last week, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that, according to the court filings in the bankruptcy proceeding, Pipeline was “required” pursuant to the acquisition agreement to shut down Westlake “by June 5” of 2019.
The closure prompted a series of lawsuits, including two filed against the company by the village of Melrose Park and a class action lawsuit filed against Pipeline by former Westlake employees. Pipeline eventually agreed to pay Melrose Park $1.5 million. At the time, Pipeline officials called the village’s lawsuits “defamatory and false.”
The closure also opened up a rift between Pipeline and local lawmakers like then-state representative and current Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch (7th) who lambasted the company, particularly Whitaker, in the press for weeks.
“Welch recalled that ‘every single time’ Pipeline Health officials spoke with hospital trustees during the purchase process, ‘they told us they wanted this hospital to invest in it, not close it. They said they believed in community, that they believe in the mission of community hospitals like Westlake.’”
Now, Pipeline is in the process of mopping up a lot of bad blood. Soran said Tuesday he’s committed to making things right, but declined to comment on events that happened before he was brought on three months ago.
“I can’t speak to the accuracy of those things, because I wasn’t there,” he said. “But I can tell you what I’m doing through a very competent CEO at West Sub and a CEO with a lot of experience in Chicago. We’re making sure that all of our elected officials know our status and know our needs.
“We are making sure that we have enough community representation on our board, which can decide the future of this hospital to make sure it is reflective of the community we serve. We’re also hiring an outreach executive who will be part of the leadership at West Sub to make sure that our programs are reflective of the community’s needs.”
In May, West Suburban Hospital added Rev. Marshall Hatch, the well-respected pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in East Garfield Park, and former Oak Park mayor Anan Abu-Taleb to its board of directors.
Abu-Taleb, who said he became West Sub’s board chair about two weeks after he left office, said the board is currently working on becoming more diverse.
“At one point, the board was not as functional,” he said. “Now, we are trying to add value to the board. The hospital has not had continuity of ownership or management, so send a positive prayer to them. West Sub is really important to our communities. It matters to all of us.”
Anan and Soran said that West Suburban receives less state funding relative to other institutions. In an April 2020 letter to Pritzker, Edwards said West Suburban and Weiss receive “significantly fewer actual dollars per hospital” in Medicaid funding and “less funding as a percentage of costs compared to other hospitals who care for similar patient populations.” Pipeline officials have also said that BlueCross BlueShield refuses to appropriately reimburse the hospital.
A spokesperson with BlueCross BlueShield did not respond to this claim in multiple requests for comment on Monday evening.
Recently, Pipeline has contracted with Brown Farmer Media Group, a PR firm owned by Deborah Farmer, a Chicago media expert responsible for leading the Chicago Police Department’s campaign to recruit more Black and Brown officers in 2016 and 2017, among other high-profile contracts.
Pipeline has also hired Phase 2 Consulting, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic advisory firm owned by Lamell McMorris.
“All they can do is what they’re doing right now,” said Farmer, referencing the recent changes that Pipeline has made in the last several months. Farmer said that Whitaker is no longer with Pipeline. Edwards, said Soran, is still with the company as a vice president.
An outreach and marketing campaign called SaveWestSub, which included newspaper advertisements in Wednesday Journal’s sister paper, Austin Weekly News, and a SaveWestSub website featuring testimonials by community leaders like Hatch and the rapper Twista, was recently postponed — the ads were pulled and the website taken down — as the Oak Park hospital’s financial situation improved in the last two weeks. Soran said Pipeline is still working on striking the right tone with the outreach campaign, noting that while the hospital still needs funding he doesn’t believe it’s closing anytime soon.
“We want to set the right tone and we want to be truthful in advertising,” he said. “So, we’re still trying to ascertain the right formulation for support. The situation is evolving. People are lining up and starting to help us and that may change how we address things.”
Soran credited Rep. Camille Lilly, Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, Speaker Welch, Senate President Don Harmon and Congressman Danny K. Davis for helping West Suburban secure $8.4 million in funding this month. The money is a combination of $4.2 million worth of American Rescue Plan Act funding and a $4.2 million grant from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
West Suburban’s new CEO, Barbara J. Martin, wrote Harmon a letter on June 4 thanking him for his efforts in securing the funds.
“Your support for West Suburban Medical Center and stewardship of these monetary resources makes a tremendous difference in the lives of our patients,” Martin said.
Eileen Lynch, Harmon’s chief of staff, said on Tuesday that Harmon has had at least five meetings with Pipeline and West Suburban officials, along with other lawmakers, in the last several weeks.
“We were in real dire straits, but the local elected officials have stepped up and helped us,” Soran said. “We’re in a less dire situation now, but we’re not where we need to be in order to have a sustainable entity. We need additional help.”
Soran said that last year, West Suburban was in need of roughly $20 million in additional funding. The $8.4 million helps fill that hole, but it’s not enough, he said.
He hopes the Health Care and Human Services Reform Act, the sweeping bill that comprises the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ fourth pillar, will also help. Pritzker appeared at West Suburban in May to announce the bill’s passage.
“The fourth pillar that talks about healthcare is of utmost importance,” Soran said. “I think the Black Caucus has done unbelievable work. I work in multiple states and this is, by far, more advanced than in any other state. I think the appropriations has not really started, but if those initiatives pan out, there will be much-needed support. There are very few hospitals in Illinois that do what we do in labor and delivery. This new bill secures some funding for providing those crucial services.”