BELLEVILLE — The city of Belleville hired a Chicago-based attorney specializing in health law in an effort to keep St. Elizabeth's Hospital in town.
"We don't want to see the main structure of this hospital leave downtown," said Mayor Mark Eckert. "We don't want to lose the ER, surgery, hospital beds -- all the services we've had for 140 years. We value the mission and the ministry they do here."
Mark Silberman, a partner with Duane Morris LLP, will work on a consulting basis for Belleville. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In an emailed statement Melissa Sterling, regional director of communications for St. Elizabeth's parent company, Springfield-based Hospital Sisters Health Systems, said: "We are disappointed to learn that the city of Belleville has hired an attorney to fight against our hospital that has served this community for nearly 140 years. During that time it has been our mission to embody Christ's healing love for all people through our health care ministry. We have regularly met with Mayor Eckert to inform him about our plans to deliver high-quality health care to the residents in the community, and we have asked him for his thoughts."
The City Council voted 14-0 Monday to approve Duane Morris' services.
The city will be billed hourly for Silberman's services but the cost -- likely between $300 and $500 per hour -- and other contract details have not been finalized, Eckert said.
The 2014-15 budget includes $50,000 for additional attorney services, an amount that should cover Silberman's costs in addition to legal services related to other city needs, Eckert said.
Eckert said the city's decision is in response to growing concerns that St. Elizabeth's Hospital will move from 211 S. Third St. in downtown Belleville to O'Fallon.
St. Elizabeth's administrators said in 2012 they had no intention of leaving Belleville after announcing plans to build a $300 million, 144-bed hospital north of Interstate 64 and west of Green Mount Road. HSHS purchased 106 acres in O'Fallon for $18 million.
But Belleville city leaders said they feel St. Elizabeth's has been "unclear" on what will be left of the Belleville campus in the future.
"You can't pick up the whole hospital and move it to O'Fallon and say you will still have a strong presence in Belleville," Eckert said.
Instead of buying property in O'Fallon, HSHS could have made $18 million in improvements to the Belleville site, Eckert said.
Eckert said city leaders want to maintain hospital services in Belleville, and he wants the hospital to know the city wants to help them redevelop the current site.
"There's been no one willing to talk," Eckert said of St. Elizabeth's administrators. "They have their minds made up, it appears, to move the hospital. They've been very inconsistent as to what might still be left in Belleville."
Belleville Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said St. Elizabeth's should not be wary of the city's move to hire a legal consultant.
"I don't look at it as much as us making a threat as we're stating our concerns and willingness to fight for them to stay here," Hayden said.
Sterling also said: "As the mayor and many of our community leaders know, we have been carefully and thoughtfully planning for how best to deliver health care in the region for the long term. As part of our planning process, our goal is to have a project that is fiscally sound and that will allow us to provide tertiary inpatient health care services to metro-east and Southern Illinois residents for decades to come."
St. Elizabeth's Hospital has not filed for a certificate of need with the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, a step necessary before any new medical facility can be constructed.
O'Fallon Mayor Gary Graham said in March that he anticipates St. Elizabeth's will file for the certificate this summer.
Silberman will mainly assist Belleville City Attorney Garrett Hoerner if the hospital applies for the certificate, Eckert said.
"If the certificate of need application is filed, we want to have somebody with experience to help us speak our concerns out about how this will negatively impact the city of Belleville," Eckert said. "We don't feel it's right to negatively impact one city to allow another city to have growth and prosperity."
Before joining Duane Morris, Silberman served as acting general counsel to the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, now called the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board.
A spokeswoman for Memorial Hospital in Belleville did not say if Memorial planned to oppose a certificate of need request from St. Elizabeth's.
"Since we've not seen an application, I don't think it would be appropriate to comment on that at this time," said Ann Thomure of Memorial.
When asked about Belleville hiring an attorney, Thomure said, "Our only comment is that we remain concerned about access to services in our community, especially for the under-served population."
Belleville city leaders said that it does not make sense for St. Elizabeth's to join Memorial in the O'Fallon area because Belleville remains the largest city south of Springfield and has long been the metro-east's medical center.
"With Memorial already building one out in Shiloh, I question the need for two out in that area," Hayden said. "When you look at the amount of acreage they've bought, it doesn't look like they want to build a satellite like Memorial out in Shiloh."
Hayden said the departure of St. Elizabeth's, the city's second largest employer, would economically devastate Belleville. And, he doesn't believe Memorial could handle all the health care needs in Belleville.
Eckert said Belleville has been a good partner to St. Elizabeth's for many years, providing extra police patrol and deploying snow plows to keep the emergency roads clear when necessary.