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Will safety net hold if St. E’s moves?

Many people think that the opposition to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital’s proposed relocation is purely parochial and that a 6.5-mile move is no big deal, but the St. Clair County Public Health Department has a very different take. County health officials are on record that moving the hospital from Belleville to O’Fallon would blast a huge hole in the safety net for the poor.

All things being equal, the county shouldn’t mind where the hospital is located because both sites are in its boundaries, and a brand new facility with construction jobs is appealing. That makes these public concerns especially alarming.

Kevin Hutchison, the director of the county’s health department, writes to the state Health Facilities and Services Review Board: “A large concentration of medically underserved and vulnerable population lives in close proximity to the current location. Transportation barriers may reduce access to the proposed location, resulting in a shift of emergency and ambulatory care services to other hospitals that may not have the capacity to meet this increased demand.”

The letter provides numerous facts and figures to back up Hutchison’s argument, including that 42 percent of St. E’s admissions in 2013 were from Belleville and East St. Louis, and 5,367 households in those and surrounding communities to the west do not have a personal vehicle. For people without private transportation, easy interstate access to a new hospital is meaningless. You can read the letter on our website or the review board’s.

One of the reasons Illinois has an approval process and doesn’t allow hospitals to move wherever they please is to protect that safety net for the poor. The county’s concerns do not necessarily mean that the state should deny St. E’s application; however, the state does need to ensure that the county health department’s concerns are considered and addressed before acting on the hospital’s application.