Doctors and healthcare advocates spoke to a joint committee of state lawmakers for over four hours Monday highlighting disparities in healthcare access
While the world is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates and lawmakers say racism is another public health emergency. This comes as Black people, immigrants, and people of color lack access to care and health insurance. The state’s 24 safety-net hospitals are a mix of public and private facilities required to provide care to patients regardless of insurance or ability to pay. The Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS) determines which hospitals are safety-net facilities by the percentage of patients using Medicaid. However, those centers struggle to stay open due to a lack of investment.
Dr. Adele Cobbs of Mercy Hospital & Medical Center Chicago said emergency room visits and hospitalizations are oftentimes the introductions to primary care and support systems for some patients.
“This reality may seem counterproductive, but this is not a pattern that can be alleviated by building outpatient centers without acute care hospitals,” Cobbs added.
She says safety-net hospitals have a significantly larger sense of community and trust. Cobbs feels access to quality healthcare and community services can help many communities struggling with longstanding health disparities. She also emphasized more people could suffer without health insurance due to unemployment from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The maternal death rate for Illinois’ minority community is a major concern for experts. Doctors explained Black women are six times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues compared to white women. They also note Hispanic women are twice as likely to die during or after childbirth as their white counterparts.
“This, in Illinois, is much higher than the national rate. So, this is something that we cannot sacrifice,” Cobbs said
SEIU Healthcare explained some hospitals have billions in revenue while safety-net facilities must choose the care available for patients. Director Anne Igoe says the COVID-19 pandemic forced hospitals to shut down essential services in order to serve COVID patients. Many hospitals were able to bring those services back, but safety-nets couldn’t.
“We have funding challenges for safety-net and critical access hospitals,” Igoe said. “A difference of $100,000, a difference of $200,000. When they don’t know exactly the amount of funding they’re getting, they can’t plan for the future.”
Other advocates noted hospitals across the country have structures where healthcare is secondary to profit.
“The United States typically ranks about 37th in the world in production of healthcare outcomes while far and away ranking first in healthcare expense. That’s the difference between an industry and a system,” emphasized Dr. Jeffrey Sterling, President and CEO of Sterling Initiatives.
HFS has renewed its focus on listening to customers to learn firsthand about their needs and worries with care across the state. Roughly one in four Illinoisans receive assistance from the Department. Deputy Director of Community Outreach, Kim McCullough, says safety-net hospitals are still a top priority.
“As of August, safety-nets received almost $300 million in direct federal COVID assistance. They’ve also received just about $24 million in state stability payments as well,” McCullough said.
HFS Director Theresa Eagleson said the department is willing to work with the Legislative Black Caucus to combat the longstanding disparities.