Closing Westlake A Matter Of ‘Life And Death,’ Doctors Say

Sunday, March 10, 2019 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews || Updated: 8:16 p.m.

Featured image: Westlake medical staffers testified during a House committee hearing in Chicago on March 8. | File

Irma Hernandez migrated to the United States from a small town in Jalisco, Mexico, where the sick “had to travel an hour or more to get to the nearest hospital.”

Now a longtime resident of Melrose Park, Hernandez is one of the many community members who have come to depend on Westlake Hospital and who are still stunned that its new owners are planning to close the 92-year-old safety net institution this year.

“Having Westlake has been a blessing,” said Hernandez, who talked fondly of Dr. Nabil Saleh, the Westlake pediatrician who delivered 15- and 16-year-old daughters.

“We should be building [the hospital up], not destroying it … This a matter of life and death … Happiness comes from doing well, not just making money.”

Hernandez and Saleh were among the roughly dozen people who testified to the possible devastation of a shuttered Westlake Hospital during a hearing held by the Illinois House of Representatives’ Appropriations-Human Services Committee on March 8 at the Bilandic Building in Chicago. The closing, hearing witnesses said, could mean higher fatality rates in the Proviso Township area.

The hearing was held at the request of state Representatives Emanuel “Chris” Welch (7th) and Kathleen Willis (77th), both of whom represent patients and employees of Westlake Hospital.

The hearing happened a day after the village of Melrose Park filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against the hospital’s new owners — the private healthcare network Pipeline Health and the private equity firm TWG Partners.

Another public hearing, hosted by the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, is scheduled to take place on Monday, March 11, from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Bulger Park, 1601 Hirsch Ave. Residents should show up by 1 p.m. in order to sign-in to speak during public comments.

The lawsuit claims that Pipeline — particularly it’s Vice Chairman Eric Whitaker, who also owns TWG Partners — lied to Westlake hospital trustees, employees, community members and local lawmakers while the company was in the process of purchasing Westlake. Two weeks after the purchase was finalized, Pipeline officials announced they were closing the hospital for financial reasons.

A company spokesperson said last month that the hospital loses $1 million a month. She added that closing Westlake would allow them to continue to operate West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park and Weiss Memorial in Chicago — the two other hospitals they purchased, along with Westlake, for $70 million from Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare in January.

Pipeline’s CEO, Jim Edwards, submitted a five-page letter to the Appropriations-Human Services Committee in which he explained that he was “fully prepared to testify” at Friday’s hearing before Melrose Park filed its lawsuit on Thursday. Edwards said that he was “disappointed” with the lawsuit’s timing. In a statement released last week, Pipeline officials called the lawsuit “defamatory and false.”

Since no Pipeline official was present at the hearing, the company could not mount a defense against the testimony of lawmakers, Westlake physicians and staff who said that Pipeline lied to them about its true intentions.

“Pipeline was less than honest and less than caring, except for profits,” Saleh told lawmakers. “One day prior to announcing the closure of the hospital, my colleagues and I met with the medical director … He assured us of the future and we promised to work hard with him to achieve the goals. Nothing could have been more deceitful.”

Welch — a Westlake trustee who was born at the hospital — blasted Pipeline officials from his seat on the committee’s legislative panel, calling them “cowards” for not showing up to the hearing.

Welch said that he was in “regular communication with Whitaker during the entire time they were purchasing the facility and at no time did Whitaker say they were selling the hospital.” He also disregarded Edwards’ explanation for his absence as part of a weeks-long attempt by Pipeline to “avoid answering questions” about the closure.

“[Pipeline officials] didn’t show up to a board meeting after purchasing Westlake, they cancelled the last board meeting after announcing they’d close and they used the lawsuit as an excuse not to show up today,” Welch said. “Pipeline can run, but they can’t hide. We are going to seek them out.”

Willis said that she ensured Pipeline officials that “we’d respect the boundaries of the lawsuit and give them free reign not to answer any questions they felt would affect the lawsuit.”

Dr. Glenn Kushner, the president of Westlake’s medical staff, pushed back against Pipeline’s claims that closing Westlake would allow them to invest more in the patients within their new three-hospital network.

“I hear that Pipeline wants to invest in people not buildings,” Kushner said, adding that “Westlake is not made of bricks and mortar,” but of community members. He said that the Tenet, the hospital’s previous owner, “only cared about the bottom line and did not invest much in the hospital which is why we’re in the predicament we’re in now. They came like vultures and left us to die, but we have survived.”

Kushner said that Westlake’s planned closure is part of a national pattern of companies closing community hospitals in poor and minority areas while building “bigger hospitals in richer suburbs.” He said that if “Rosa Parks rode the bus today, she’s see the same struggle.”

Kushner said that “it’s been shown when corporations close the community hospitals, the doctors leave the area, as well.” He lambasted Pipeline’s proposal to provide shuttle busses to patients, who may include pregnant women, to West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park. He also said that closing Westlake could possibly translate into longer ambulance run times that could have a ripple effect.

“More people will die waiting for help to arrive,” he said. “This is inequality at its highest form.”

Dr. Lyndon Taylor, an obstetrician/gynecologist who has practiced at Westlake since 1979, said that “Melrose Park would become an obstetrical desert if Westlake closes.”

Westlake — which has 230 beds and employs around 670 people, 200 of them “on an as-needed basis,” according to Pipeline officials — provides in-patient mental health services to people who have exhausted their Medicare coverage and is the only hospital in Melrose Park with a functioning obstetrics department that provides pregnancy, childbirth and post-partum services.   

“Our patients are the working poor and the homeless,” said Shelly Pechulis, an emergency room nurse at Westlake who has worked the night shift for five years. She said that Westlake is the only hospital in the area that provides its range of psychiatric services for patients with Medicaid, Medicare or who are uninsured.

Liz Figueroa, a community partners coordinator at Sarah’s Inn, which serves victims of domestic violence, said that Westlake’s staff is culturally sensitive and well-equipped to handle the area’s large Hispanic population.

“Westlake is the most favored hospital in our community, providing medical services within walking distance,” said Figueroa, who also lives in Proviso Township and said that Westlake is her hospital of choice.  

“Our patients will perish if Westlake closes,” Pechulis said, adding that psychiatric patients will “have no services during their delusional states” and that some patients won’t trust going to another hospital “because of the language barriers.”

Jesse Rojas, the executive director of the Proviso Mental Health Commission, said that Westlake is the largest behavioral healthcare provider in the area.

“When families go into crisis or need to be stabilized, that’s where we send them,” he said. “Westlake is much more than a medical facility to us. It is our lifeline in order to keep the area healthy for our low-income and minority population … Where do I send those families to?”

Dr. Raymond McDonald, a specialist in geriatric medicine and the former director of the Baptist Retirement Home in Maywood, said that one center where he practices serves about 80 developmentally delayed patients who “will not be adequately cared for if Westlake closes.”

Pechulis, referencing the train tracks that run along Main Street and divide parts of Melrose Park and Maywood, said that Westlake’s closure would exacerbate already problematic realities for emergency responders.

“The problem we have with that train in Maywood is that Maywood [ambulances are] not advanced life support, they’re basic ambulances,” she said, adding that no Westlake “could mean life or death” for some patients.

McDonald said that Westlake is “seeing 19,000 people,” most of whom are uninsured or under-insured. “I have no idea where they’re going to go or how they’ll be received. For a long time, quite frankly, Gottlieb [Melrose Park’s second hospital] was getting the better paying customers. They’re going to get a surprise if Westlake closes.”

The employees also pushed back against some claims they said Pipeline officials have floated since the closing, including the notion that doctors don’t want to work at Westlake.

“They don’t know us,” Kushner said. “They’ve not made an attempt to know us.”

Kushner added that the majority of doctors have been at Westlake for many years. McDonald said that “once hospitals start talking about closing, young doctors don’t come to the hospital because they fear they have no future there.

“I’m a capitalist at heart, but not for healthcare,” he said. “You’re not going to attract young doctors to a hospital if they think it will close in a year, or two years or five years. It has to be a long-term commitment.”

Pechulis addressed Pipeline’s proposal to transfer some Westlake employees to West Suburban Medical Center or Weiss. She said that there has been a job fair at Westlake and that two HR recruiters from West Suburban and Weiss “came to our cafeteria and said they have positions open at each hospital.”

The recruiters, Pechulis said, did not tell anyone how many openings they have. She said that she’s looked into personnel openings at West Suburban and only found “one nurse position” open. An official with West Suburban could not immediately be reached for comment on Sunday afternoon.

Mais Salmon, a phlebotomist at Westlake, said that Pipeline should either scrap its plans to close Westlake or sell the hospital to another entity that will operate it. Salmon also questioned why the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, which reviews change of ownership applications, allowed Pipeline to purchase Westlake if it did not have the capacity to operate the hospital.

She added that Pipeline’s offer to shuttle patients from Westlake to West Suburban “is purely about retaining Westlake’s patients and revenue … Why not shuttle patients to Gottlieb, which is much closer?”

Ari Scharg , an attorney with Edelson, the law firm representing Melrose Park, explained that the Review Board “had no choice but to approve” the purchase due to a 2015 change in state law designed to expedite the change of ownership process.

“Here it was used against the community,” Scharg said, adding that the Review Board “has been stripped of its discretion to hold these people accountable for things they might learn separate from their applications that were submitted.”

In its change of ownership application, Pipeline said that it would continue Westlake’s charity care policy of assisting patients who can’t pay their medical bills and that the hospital would remain open.

Welch said that he first met Whitaker, who is a friend of former president Barack Obama, at an Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Christmas party, where Whitaker “specifically sought me out” in order to express his interest in purchasing Westlake.

“For the next year, “ Welch said, “Whitaker continued to make statements to me and another member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus that Pipeline’s intention was to continue to open the hospital. I believe that Eric Whitaker and his partners at Pipeline Health intentionally engaged in campaigns of conspiracy to perpetrate fraud.”

According to the lawsuit, Melrose Park officials agreed to transfer a redevelopment agreement that it had with Tenet over to Pipeline based on Whitaker’s reassurances. The agreement made Westlake eligible for a certain amount of property tax revenue.

Melrose Park claims that, in addition to fraud and conspiracy, the defendants also violated various village ordinances and created a public nuisance. The village is requesting that the defendants pay all fines and penalties allowable under Melrose Park’s municipal code and attorney’s fees, among other costs.

Welch said that the Attorney General should investigate the extent of Pipeline’s alleged fraud and conspiracy. Scharg added that, should Pipeline close Westlake and attempt to redevelop or sell the building, the village will not make the process easy for the company.

Since learning of the planned closure, Welch has repeatedly blasted the decision as indicative of the company’s lack of concern for poor and minority communities.

“They bought three hospitals,” he said during Friday’s hearing. “One in Oak Park, one on the North Side of Chicago and one in Melrose Park. We know they wouldn’t close those other two.”

Lilian Jimenez, the associate director of PASO-West Suburban Action Group, which had a large contingent of members at the hearing, said that “we can’t afford to lose a hospital” that primarily services African American and Latinx communities.

Willis said that she hopes Pipeline can sell Westlake to another owner “who cares about community.” Welch said that there have already been offers from buyers looking to purchase Westlake and keep it open, but that, so far, Pipeline has not been responsive.

Pipeline officials could not be immediately reached for comment when contacted on Sunday afternoon. A Pipeline spokesperson said last month that the company had not received any serious offers.

Willis said that she and Welch have introduced legislation in the House that would make it harder for companies like Pipeline to close community hospitals. In the meantime, Welch urged residents to show up at Monday’s hearing.

“We need the community to show up,” he said. “Bring your friends and neighbors. We’ll continue to fight back and, at the end of the fight, I believe we’ll keep Westlake open.” VFP

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the last name of Ari Scharg. VFP regrets this error.

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