State regulators could do a bizarre thing on Tuesday and order Cook County to run a hospital it doesn't want and doesn't need. Or the regulators could do the right thing and get the heck out of the way.
Cook County wants to shut down the underutilized emergency room and inpatient services of Oak Forest Hospital in the south suburbs. The facility would still provide health care as a regional outpatient center.
The politically independent experts who run the county's health care system have spent months figuring out how to improve care for the poor and pare taxpayers' costs. The key: The county's three hospitals have far more inpatient capacity than they need. The plan is to reduce that inpatient care and expand outpatient services.
In March, the (here comes a mouthful) Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board rejected that plan. This is a state agency that rules on the expansion plans of public and private hospitals in the state. It's a board we think should be disbanded, but that argument's for another day.
The issue on Tuesday is whether this faceless board of bureaucrats will try to thwart the sensible efforts of local experts to vastly improve the cost and efficiency of health services in Cook County.
In April, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wisely showed her determination to follow the recommendations of the experts. The county commissioners are on board. Their budget cuts off funds for Oak Forest's inpatient services as of June 1. There's no money.
But the staffers of the state board concluded that converting Oak Forest could create a "capacity crunch," leaving too few beds for intensive care and long-term care.
Many health care centers and hospitals in the region sharply disagree. They have filed letters supporting Cook County's proposal. Many say they're ready to accept the patients who might have gone to Oak Forest. It's a small number. More than two-thirds of Oak Forest's 213 licensed beds stand empty on an average day, state data show.
Moreover, Stroger Hospital has more than enough capacity to absorb those patients. No one would lose care.
So what happens if the state regulators tell Cook County taxpayers that they have to fund and run a hospital that's not needed?
According to a legal opinion from the Cook County state's attorney's office, state law gives the county the power to run a hospital, but no legal obligation to do so. Preckwinkle has pointedly reminded the health facilities board of that opinion.
If the state regulators try to compel Cook County to run the hospital, the county will have every right and reason to say no.
The faceless regulators could pick that fight. Or they could do the right thing … and let the health experts in Cook County do their job.