Aldermen criticize Advocate officials at council hearing

Late notice seen as a lack of respect by council members

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By TERRY DEAN

Advocate Health Care officials received a verbal lashing Tuesday from several upset aldermen during a public hearing on Advocate's plan to slash services at its West Side hospital.

Advocate, a tax-exempt, non-profit health care provider, announced in the media Jan. 11, that it was closing basic services at Bethany Hospital, 3435 W. Van Buren, and converting the facility to a long-term care center.

But officials didn't tell West Side aldermen about the plan until 48 hours before making the news public. That move and other decisions made by Oak Brook-based Advocate caused alderman on the health committee to fume.

"You did not care enough or respect us enough to call my office," said committee Chair Ed Smith (28th Ward).

Advocate Health Care President James Skogsbergh along with other Advocate officials testified Tuesday that not calling aldermen and other community leaders ahead of time was "a serious error." But he also testified that talks of shuttering Bethany's services began at Advocate in September 2005, and that the decision to go forward with service cuts was made as late as November 2005, which drew even more fire from aldermen.

"You've been working on this thing for nine months and didn't say a word?" said Smith. "That's total disrespect. Had this not been my ward and had this been a ward up north some place, you never would have done that. You would have gone to that alderman and tell them what you're doing."

Each response from alderman drew cheers from the city council chamber gallery where close to a hundred West Side residents and activists were seated. Members from ACORN and the South Austin Coalition arrived prior to the 1 p.m. hearing in buses and vans, with signs and buttons saying "Save Bethany Hospital."

Tax-exempt status questioned

Advocate plans to turn the 125-bed West Side hospital into a care facility for acute patients. Other services, including its emergency room, closed this month. Advocate officials made the move, claiming that Bethany annually loses millions.

Officials testified Tuesday that Advocate's board of directors did a conversion study in September 2005.

Skogsbergh said that Advocate remained committed to providing charitable care to the West Side.

"I say your mission has changed," said Ald. Joseph Moore (49th). "You're going to be serving only a segment of the population. So if you're going to do that, you need to be honest."

Advocate said Bethany Hospital lost $17 million in 2005 and roughly the same amount the previous year. When asked about its profits, Skogsbergh testified that Bethany recorded $49 million in operational income in 2005 and another $100 million from investment income. He also testified that Advocate provided $28 million in charitable care last year.

Moore charged that Bethany is looking to make money while reducing costs at the expense of low-income residents.

Advocate officials testifying were sketchy on the system's previous profits, which drew a sarcastic response from Ald. Manuel Flores (1st).

"When you don't know how much money you're making, then maybe that's the problem," he said, further criticizing officials for their lack of communication.

Advocate submitted an application to city and state officials for a change of service at Bethany's ER as early as January, said Bethany Hospital President Lena Dobbs-Johnson, who testified Tuesday.

Bethany's ER closed at noon on Feb. 11. North Lawndale resident Kina Smith arrived just 15 minutes prior with her 15-year-old son who had a broken toe. She said hospital officials turned people away after shutting the doors at noon.

"If I had gotten to the emergency room 20 minutes later, the emergency room would not have saved my child," she said. "They locked the doors at 12 o'clock and said no more patients can come into the emergency room."

Stealth community health fund

Aldermen Tuesday were equally upset at Advocate's offer to establish a $10 million community health fund to provide grant funding for community health providers?"another decision aldermen and residents knew nothing about. Advocate officials, however, met with a number of Austin and West ministers in a meeting at its Oak Brook headquarters on Friday Feb. 3. In a letter sent to Pastor Greg Livingston, dated Feb. 6, and signed by Skogsbergh, the CEO outlined the fund and thanked the West Side ministers for the meeting.

Livingston said he made the letter public at community meetings to get residents' reactions.

"I asked the community what they thought and they told us?"this is not enough," said Livingston, pastor of Mandell United Methodist Church.

Livingston told the Austin Weekly News a day before the meeting that he and other pastors were contacted about the fund shortly after Advocate's Jan. 11, service cuts announcement. He said that he and other ministers were "going to hear what they had to say."

Livingston didn't testify, but other West Side ministers did, claiming they were being used by Advocate to stem public criticism.

"If the community had not come out on King Day and blew the lid off about everything that was happening we wouldn't be having this hearing here today," said Livingston after the hearing.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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