Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The People's Movement: Save Kenneth Hall Hospital

Interview with: Mayor Alvin Parks ( East St. Louis)

How can a city call itself fully functioning if it lacks a complete operating healthcare facility? Would you live in a city knowing that the closest hospital is miles away? Strangely enough, this is an unfortunate situation that the city of East St. Louis might have to face if the Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation gets their way and the proposal for the merge of Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital and Touchette Regional Hospital is accepted. The possibility of losing their only hospital has made the community of East St. Louis furious. But who wouldn’t be? For some folks, this merge could mean life or death.

Save Kenneth Hall Hospital - East St. Louis

Sara:I understand you're a native of the East St. Louis community. You went to school there and graduated as class president and valedictorian in 1979. This city obviously means a lot to you. Growing up did you always want to be Mayor?

Mayor: That was not an interest of mine growing up. It did not become an interest until really a couple of years later when I made a determination that this is the way to go.

Sara: How influential was the hip hop community in helping elect you as Mayor?

Mayor: It was huge. The hip hop community came out and helped knock on doors, create commercials and helped to make sure the radio spots were going to be made available. They influenced everything, right down to our palm cards and signs that ran the streets. A whole new full color format came into existence. The hip hop community, led by Walter Hill, really transformed the way we’ll be doing politics in the future for the city of East St. Louis.

Photo By, Erica M. Brooks

Sara: Being politically active and gaining political power has definitely become an important issue within the hip hop community today. Why do you think this is so?

Mayor: It is so important quite frankly because many people in the hip hop community are very creative, progressive minded, far thinking, high thinking individuals. The hip hop community understands that to get anything done, the womb to the tomb, will involve some level of politics. Whether we are talking about the government, community agencies or the education system, politics plays a major part. We need for the hip hop community to keep doing what they are doing and to do it even stronger. I’m very glad to be a part of what you’re looking to do here.

Sara: East St. Louis is going through what you have declared a national crisis. More than ever you need the community to step forward and demand to be heard. Tell me what's happening right now in your community in regards to Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital?

Mayor: Actually, we have what we are calling a global situation. It’s more than a national situation. We are talking about healthcare. We are talking about something that crosses the globe. We are talking about issues that impact you whether you’re Black, White, Haitian American, Latino American, young, old, middle. Everybody is impacted by the access to healthcare. The situation with East St. Louis at this point is that we have an organization that currently operates our hospital looking to take the hospital out of our community and move it to a community that is 8-10 miles south east of the current location. This makes it inaccessible not only for the citizens of East St. Louis but the residents of Washington Park, Brooklyn, Fairmount City, Alorton, Centerville and Cahokia. Taking it out there will make it much more inaccessible for downtown St. Louis, Missouri and anybody that will be on the highway systems crossing to and through East St. Louis and St. Louis, Missouri. That’s roughly a quarter million people who are being severely inconvenienced if for some reason the current operators get their wish. That’s inexcusable. It’s totally insensitive. It’s unacceptable and it is a callous disregard for the healthcare needs of this community. Somebody said a very long time ago, that somebody was Martin Luther King and he said an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is an injustice that they are trying to perpetrate.

Sara: Now just to be clear, the hospital that they are trying to shut down is the only hospital in the city correct?

Mayor: This is the only hospital that is in the city of East St. Louis. In fact, it is the only hospital that is within the region that includes all of the municipalities that I mentioned before. Photo By, Erica M. Brooks

Sara: Touchette Regional Hospital is the hospital they are planning to merge with. It is quite a distance for most of the citizens in East St. Louis. I read somewhere it's about 5-6 miles away. If individuals do not have access to a vehicle what are they expected to do? This could be a matter of life or death.

Mayor: I’m assuming that the new operator would be hoping the ambulance would take them there but again you hit a key point. I’m going to add another factor that you may not be aware off. There is a railroad track that is on 21st Street. If a train is on the track, which it often is, you can be delayed another 20-25 maybe even 30 minutes if the train is not moving as quickly as it should be. That clearly would be the difference between life and death. I had a doctor in the area estimate that the additional transit time would actually create another 200 deaths per year in this region because of the delay in transit time getting a person from downtown East St. Louis out to Centreville’s Touchette Regional Hospital. You’re talking about something that really becomes inaccessible and therefore a severe crisis possibly being created here. It’s all because they are not acknowledging what the statement of certificate of need is supposed to be about. It’s not about certificate of greed. It’s certificate of need. Need is in the East St. Louis with the 31,000 people we have here plus all the other people we talked about.

Sara: How long has Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital been around and what are the conditions inside like right now?

Mayor: Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital has been known as the Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital for the last 4 years. Before that, it was a 115 year old hospital named St. Mary. So the building is about 119 years old at this point. It’s really not about the facility itself. The facility itself is rock solid. We recognize that we need a new facility just like the hip hop industry needs something that’s new, fresh and exciting. We need something that’s new, fresh and exciting also. Until we get to that point, we need something to bridge the gap to get to that point. We need a new operator to go inside the current facility, keep the facility as it is and build upon it a little bit, making sure it is at least acceptable and a little bit beyond acceptable for the people that need to go there. Make sure the facility can service the medical needs until we can bridge the gap for the new hospital. A new hospital may be anywhere from 4 to 10 years but we have to have a non-stoppage service right now. The people of East St. Louis deserve that. The people of this greater community deserve that.

Sara: Is the main reason for closure the lack of money for payroll because of the debt the hospital is in? If so, has anyone looked into the financial records of the hospital to see where the money is going and if it can be reallocated into different areas of the hospital to keep it open?

Mayor: Actually, what is happening is they are using the statement that the financial conditions of the hospital will not allow them to continue to operate. They are saying that our customers that go there are either slow paid or no paid. There are a couple of big questions here. If you are operating unprofitably why don’t you show the community your books? The Illinois Department of Public Health has asked the same question. Since they are using financial reasons for the closure of the hospital, they’re asking for audited financial statements for 2004, 2005 and 2006. They, for whatever reason, refuse to provide those audited financial statements or they are saying they don’t have them. I don’t know how you can operate a business and not have audited financial statements. The second part of this is if you are saying that slow paid people are the reason you can’t stay in business, we don’t completely buy that either. One thing about it is if you are getting a lot of your payments by way of Medicare or Medicaid that is government money. Basically, it is guaranteed money. That money is a lot easier to access than the money you have from private Joe who is out here who’s supposed to pay you whenever he’s supposed to pay you. Third big point is, if you are concerned about repairing then why haven’t you gone to School Direct 189 with its 14,000 employees, or the Casino Queen with its 11,000 employees or to the City of East St. Louis with its over 200 employees and asked for some sort of partnership to get their people who are currently employees there to use that hospital. You have to sell something in the process of trying to keep your business vibrant. They haven’t really done that. I don’t know anyone in any one of those three institutions that will tell you anybody at Touchette Regional Hospital or Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital were sent to them to talk about what we can do to remain a viable institution. Photo By, Erica M. Brooks

Sara: Where do all these workers go once the hospital is shut down? They'll be unemployed and then what? The city will have to support these people who longer can support themselves. Isn't that a bigger burden for the city?

Mayor: It’s a big burden for the city. It’s negative every which way you look at it. You have 3 huge negatives. The first, which is the most important one, the healthcare needs of this community not being met. Second big negative, all the people that you just named will be out of jobs and to take it a step further it’s an attempt to bust the union, Service Employees International Union, which basically has 400 employees at the East St. Louis Hospital most of whom would be out of a job when those jobs are transferred to Touchette Regional Hospital. There is no real union in place at Touchette Regional Hospital. So it’s an attempt to bust the union. Third big issue is the fact that you will have a big ugly eye sore in the middle of downtown East St. Louis in a community we are trying to rebuild and our downtown being the first thing that we are targeting quite frankly. We need that kind of institution to be up and running and vibrant. It’s not only downtown but it’s also in our medical district. You don’t take an institution as important as a hospital would be to a medical district and simply do away with it. There are several negative elements to this whole attempt by the Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation. It’s unfortunate. They’re an institution we respect for their health clinics. They do a good job with those but they don’t do a good job running the hospitals.

Sara: What makes me sad about this situation is the fact that the doctors and nurses are eventually going to move elsewhere. Basically, if the hospital shuts down, it’ll be turning away the powerful, educated, outstanding citizens from the community. The population will slowly decrease. As mayor, how do you feel about that?

Mayor: I think that every element of this situation would be a downward move. We’ll be moving in a backward direction. You can’t talk about growing a community from an economical development standpoint without having the adequate healthcare and hopefully beyond adequate healthcare for the community. We don’t need any backward moves. We are trying to rebuild. This year we are looking to build 400 units of housing in the city. Next year between now and 2010, we are looking to add about 2500 people to our population. We have a lot to do but I know we can do it. We don’t need backward steps like losing our only hospital.

Sara: Now to my understanding, December was when the decision was initially supposed to be made but because of the rally that was held and t

he large number of people who came out to support, the decision making was pushed back. Tell me what happened at that rally.
Mayor: It was December 4th and 5th that the decision was supposed to be made. The rally took place on November the 9th. When the rally took place, right after that we submitted our rebuttal package indicating all the reasons, some of which I’ve stated here, for why the hospital should not be closed. Then because they had not answered the questions adequately and had not completed the application adequately, they decided to give them another six weeks to actually complete answering a few questions. So the hearing got moved to January 15th which just happens to be Martin Luther King’s birthday.Photo By, Erica M. Brooks

Sara: Have you spoken to other political leaders and what do they have to say about this situation?

Mayor: Yes we have. The positive news is that every political leader in the East St. Louis community with an exception of a couple have stepped forward in a rather significant way saying we support East St. Louis keeping the hospital and we are against the current merging attempt that the current operator is attempting. We have our State Representative also on board and it appears that our State Senator is also coming along and trying to give us some assistance with this too. We have Congressman Costello who has made it very clear that he is in support of East St. Louis keeping the hospital. We have yet to hear from our two United States Senators and what their position will actually be but we need for their positions to be known very quickly. We hope that their positions are in favour of us keeping the hospital. They are both strong health care advocates.

Sara: Has the hip hop community reached out to you in this crisis?

Mayor: One thing is for sure, the hip hop community is making it abundantly clear that they are not sitting down and they are not going to take this situation lightly at all. You would think that sometimes younger people would not like to be involved and younger people don’t care about healthcare but that is completely to the contrary. Young folks are ready to stand up for what they believe belongs to them. They have made it abundantly clear they are for East St. Louis keeping the hospital.

Sara: There is another rally coming up on January 15 th in Springfield. What are you expecting to gain from that? Are you expecting a decision to be made that day…hopefully in your favour?

Mayor: We are hoping to present a strong presence in Springfield so that the people that are making the decision about the hospital are looking at the situation and saying, we must find a way to keep this hospital open and not make the decision that the current operator wants them to make. I’m expecting them to make that decision in our favour on that day. The reason we are going on Tuesday is because we are not taking anything for granted. We’ve got the indication that they are not pleased with the application that has come from the Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation but we will not take anything for granted.

Sara: If a decision is made not in your favour, what's next?

Mayor: We would look at how we can gain our own certificate of need. If they take the certificate of need and merge it then that means it is no longer an East St. Louis based certificate of need. We would then need to pursue our own certificate of need and the challenge becomes how do you get a facility to do that kind of application? You have some potential legal situations to be aware of and also some business and technical aspects to deal with at that point. If for some reason they make the decision in the wrong direction on Tuesday then the situation is a long way from the end for us.

Sara: If a decision is made in your favour, how will you deal with the debt situation the hospital is facing? We are talking about 2-3 million each year?

Mayor: Right. There are several aspects to it. The good news is that we have an operator ready to go and we keep telling them to be ready to go almost immediately. First aspect is, get the building for as low price as possible and everything that goes with the building including the intellectual aspects of it such as the ability to hire doctors and nurses that are currently employed there, ability to have a lot of equipment that goes with the hospital but in addition to all of that making sure that we have individuals that are willing to negotiate with those three big employers along with other employers to get their employees to use the hospital so that you increase the profitability and you add to the mix some private paid high customers. Last but not least, to just actually really care about what you want to do. Photo By, Erica M. Brooks

Sara: I just want to applaud you for fighting to protect your city. You have great passion for your community. Do you have any last minute words?

Mayor: I just encourage anyone reading this interview to please feel free in joining with us, even if you can’t be there with us on Tuesday in person, to be there with us on the internet. Put a blog up, put some sort of e-mail out there, send it to the Illinois of Public Health and send it to the Illinois Governor. Make sure he understands what your sentiment is. Let them know that East St. Louis needs, wants and deserves to keep a hospital. Let them know that you really care about the people!
East St. Louis really needs to win this battle. Shutting down the hospital in this community would simply be immoral. When the community does win, they need to demand for a second hospital! Strength is in numbers. Get everybody out there! The life of the city depends on Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital. Too many lives will be at risk should they shut it down. Hopefully the financial reports can be thrown out the window and the value of human life can be taken into consideration when it comes time for decision making. Till then, East St. Louis stand-up and make sure your voices are heard loud and clear!

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1 comment:

Walter said...

"We can change anything, That we do not like about ourself, our family and especially our community!"

The time is now to live and fight the "DREAM"! Health care is the vital connection to life. "LIFE MORE ABUNDANTLY FOR EAST ST. LOUIS!

Walter D. Hill,M.A.
National Youth Leader
East St. Louis, IL