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Protest threat of city health clinic privatization

City clinic clients and community supporters will protest Tuesday against the threat of privatization at an event where Mayor Emanuel and Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair are speaking on “Transforming Healthcare in Chicago.”

Southside Together Organizing for Power and others – who stopped city efforts to close mental health clinics two years ago – will rally at 10 a.m., Tuesday, August 16, at the University Clulb, 76 E. Monroe.

Emanuel is said to be set to unveil a plan for the city’s health services next week [correction: it’s being released Tuesday, August 16].  In July he said he’d identified millions of dollars of savings by ordering city health clinics to partner with federally-qualified health centers, private nonprofits that operate clinics under federal grants and guidelines.

No details on how those savings would be accomplished have yet been forthcoming.

But last month, the city’s labor relations director wrote AFSCME Council 31 saying the city is considering contracting out services provided by its community health centers – and that job losses for union members could be expected.

In addition to a range of specialized public health services, the city provides primary health care for 30,000 residents at seven community health centers. City clinics largely serve the working poor, who don’t have insurance but don’t qualify for Medicaid.

One possible model for cost savings could be Cook County’s recent effort to close Women Infant and Children programs at 11 community sites.  The 20,000 women and children who receive nutritional assistance, prenatal care, and screenings and referrals each year were to be sent to federally-qualified health centers.

That plan was reversed by the county following an intensive grassroots lobbying effort by AFSCME and WIC clients, who argued that it would limit access to the program and reduce its effectiveness.

One concern is that, while city clinics are free to those who can’t pay, FQHCs charge on a sliding scale, said Linda DeLaforgue of Citizen Action Illinois.

The area’s largest FQHC, Access Community Health Network, generated some controversy a couple years ago when it raised its self-pay scale in the midst of the recession.

“If the city closes clinics, it walks away from a core mission and puts vulnerable people at risk,” said Anders Lindal of AFSCME.  “You’re breaking up long-term relationships” between doctors and patients and raising barriers to access care, he said.

And if the goal is saving money by driving down wages and benefits for clinic staff, that undercuts living standards for Chicago residents, he said.

“We worry when they talk about ‘transforming’ health care,” said Matt Ginsburg-Jaeckle of STOP.  “We think of public housing, which they ‘transformed’ by destroying it.”

STOP is demanding that clinic patients and community be included in planning for the health care system.

Ginsburg-Jaeckle said that Commissioner Couchair backed out of a huge mental health town hall meeting earlier this month at the last minute, after confirming his attendance several times.  “What’s he afraid of?” he asked.  “What’s he hiding?”

On Tuesday morning, DeLaforgue will be at a hearing of the state’s health facilities planning board, where Cook County will try a second time to get approval for closing Oak Forest Hospital.

Resistance to that move by Oak Forest patients so far has won some concessions from the county, including a 24-hour emergency room. But uninsured residents of the South Suburbs will face huge travel times to Stroger Hospital if Oak Forest is dismantled, DeLaforgue said.

“Everybody is trying to get out of providing health care right now,” she said.  “But if we don’t have a system for public health care in such a major urban area, we really are a third-world country.”

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