"The plan was half-baked," state Rep. Lamont Robinson, a Chicago Democrat, said. "You want to close hospitals in African American communities, and you cannot tell me if the (new) hospital is ... going to be in an affluent area? Will seniors in my district who don't have cars, who are on Medicare and Medicaid, have to travel to Beverly? How could I, in good faith, support their plan and share this information with my constituents?"
With an estimated $1.1 billion investment—including government dollars—the plan was to build at least one new hospital and open up to six new community health centers that would expand access to preventive services and address social determinants of health, such as food insecurity. Beyond that, details were scarce.
"There were antitrust regulatory issues that we had to abide by in our discussions, which prohibited us from being more specific about certain things that people wanted specificity around—particularly locations," St. Bernard Hospital CEO Charles Holland said. "It wasn't our role to decide where a new facility would be built. In fact, we couldn't make that determination yet because we were still four independent organizations."
State legislators say it wasn't clear to them that Mercy would close if the funds were not made available for the merger.
Meanwhile, mounting expenses and dwindling inpatient volumes have already led hospitals serving Black and Brown communities, like MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island, to shutter. Even some hospitals that have managed to stay afloat have been forced to cut services. Jackson Park Hospital & Medical Center in South Shore closed its obstetrics unit last year, and St. Bernard in Englewood suspended labor and delivery services in April to focus on treating COVID-19 patients. St. Bernard has directed expectant mothers to deliver their babies at Mercy.
The move is troubling as Black women in Illinois are nearly three times as likely to die from complications of childbirth as white women, according to the state's Department of Public Health.
"With the closing of Mercy, we are in a sense continuing to increase these numbers"—from maternal mortality to COVID-19 complications, Robinson said.
The shift away from pricey hospital-based care was in motion before COVID-19, sources say, noting that the pandemic is expected to accelerate hospital closures across the country. And, unlike Mercy, most institutions don't have the wherewithal of the nation's fifth-largest not-for-profit hospital chain.
While many of the safety nets on Chicago's South Side are independent, Mercy is owned by Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity—the $19 billion-revenue system that also owns three-hospital Loyola Medicine.
Robinson wants Trinity to dig deep to keep the hospital open. But monthly operating losses of $4 million are no longer sustainable, Mercy said last month when it announced it would close between Feb. 1 and May 31, pending state approval. Since purchasing the Near South Side hospital in 2012, Trinity has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to fund infrastructure improvements and meet operating needs.
Instead of continuing to incur steep losses, Mercy said it's planning to open an outpatient center that would offer diagnostics, urgent care and care coordination to prevent emergency room visits and hospitalizations among residents.
"Ultimately," it said, "change needs to happen on the South Side of Chicago in delivering healthcare and Mercy can't do it alone."