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State board turns down St. Elizabeth’s request to move to O’Fallon

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital’s plan to move from Belleville and rebuild in O’Fallon hit a roadblock Tuesday, but hospital leaders said they’re not giving up.

The hospital’s request to build in O’Fallon fell one vote short of the five it needed Tuesday from a state board that regulates hospital construction projects.

Four members of the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board voted in favor of the project, while one voted against it. Under state law, a project needs at least five votes for approval. The eight-member board had only five members present Tuesday.

The denial was not totally unexpected. St. Elizabeth’s officials had said they would resubmit their application in the event of a denial. The hospital has 14 days to notify the board that it plans to resubmit the plan.

Maryann Reese, the hospital’s CEO, said afterward: “While we’re disappointed that only five Review Board members were present, we are optimistic that when more members are present, we will get the five affirmative votes we need for approval. We hope to have our project heard by the full board at an upcoming meeting.”

Reese said the preliminary denial is “not unusual for a project of this size.”

During the hearing, Reese told the board it doesn’t make sense for St. Elizabeth’s to “continually pour money into an aging building.”

Sister Jomary Trstensky, the provincial superior of Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, said St. Elizabeth’s is not deserting Belleville.

“We are not abandoning Belleville,” she said. “We are not abandoning our mission.”

The religious order is part of Hosptial Sisters Health System, which is the parent of St. Elizabeth’s.

Those speaking against the move included Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert. Eckert said hospital officials have said they “needed to get out to the interstate to get to a better payer mix in O’Fallon.”

Another opponent, Memorial Hospital CEO Mark Turner, said the move would “substantially diminish access to care” for Belleville residents. “We do support St. Elizabeth’s, but not this project,” Turner said.

Memorial is building a satellite campus within two miles of the proposed site of the new St. Elizabeth’s.

Supporters included the Rev. Jim Deiters, a priest who serves on St. Elizabeth’s board. Deiters said Belleville’s opposition is based on parochialism, and that denying the proposal would be “a tragedy for Southern Illinois.”

Supporters also included O’Fallon Mayor Gary Graham.

In Illinois, hospitals are required to get approval for construction projects from the Review Board. The board, meeting Tuesday in Bolingbrook, heard a presentation from St. Elizabeth’s leaders and heard comments from members of the public.

The board currently has eight members, who serve as volunteers. There is one vacancy on the board, which normally has nine members.

The board member who voted against the project was Philip Bradley of Sangamon County. Voting in favor were Dale Galassie of Lake County, John Hayes of Cook County, Richard Sewell of Cook County, and the chairwoman, Kathryn Olson of Ogle County. Absent were Deanna Demuzio of Macoupin County, Dr. James Burden of Cook County and Judge Alan Greiman of Cook County.

Bradley said his concerns included the possibility that medical services would be unnecessarily duplicated in the region.

Sewell said the board shouldn’t decide the issue on a “Belleville-versus-O’Fallon” basis. He also said the board members “haven’t seen any evidence” that St. Elizabeth’s is seeking a better payer mix.

Galassie voiced concern about the attendance issue, and said he hopes the vacancy on the board will be filled soon. The board’s administrator, Courtney Avery, did not offer an explanation for why three board members were absent. The hearing Tuesday had to be halted at one point because one of the board members briefly stepped outside the room, leaving the board without a legally-required quorum.

St. Elizabeth’s is asking the board for permission to close its 303-bed hospital in downtown Belleville and open a replacement hospital off Interstate 64 on North Green Mount Road. The cost of the project is $253 million. St. Elizabeth’s also proposes building an ambulatory care center adjacent to the new hospital, making the total cost of the project about $300 million.

Supporters of the project say the O’Fallon location, by the interstate, will provide easier access for more patients — including ones in lower-income areas to the west. However, those who oppose the project have accused the hospital of abandoning Belleville, where it has operated almost 140 years, and seeking a better “payer mix” in a more affluent area. Payer mix is hospital jargon for the mix of patients with private insurance versus Medicaid or Medicare, which provide lower payments.

St. Elizabeth’s leaders said 75 percent of the hospital’s patients come from outside Belleville. They also said the move is not designed to get a better payer mix. Of the hospital’s patients, they said, non-Belleville residents are more likely to be Medicaid patients.

East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks, who spoke against the proposal, disputed the notion that the move to the interstate would provide greater access to low-income residents. He said many East St. Louisans wouldn’t be able to get to the new location. “Many do not own cars,” he said.

Members of Oppose the Move, a group that is trying to keep St. Elizabeth’s in Belleville, said they’re confident the board will deny the application next time, too.

The group’s organizer, Stephanie Dorris, said: “The state found several deficiencies in the proposal to move, and I never saw anything presented that overcame them. Based on that, I’m surprised that anyone voted in favor of it.”

Another organizer of the group, Patty Gregory, said: “We’re quite pleased with the outcome today. This will be revisited, but we’re confident that we’re in the right.”

Turner, the Memorial Hospital CEO, sent a message to Memorial employees after the hearing, saying the initial denial is “just the beginning of an ongoing process.” Turner said a move by St. Elizabeth’s would “stress” the resources at Memorial, including its emergency room.

“We hope that St. E’s and the city can come together on a plan that modernizes or rebuilds their facility here in Belleville,” Turner said in the note.

St. Elizabeth’s officials say the outdated Belleville hospital building will be razed if no new tenant can be found. Hospital leaders also say they’d keep an outpatient medical campus in downtown Belleville, including an urgent-care center, doctor offices, labs and therapy services.

It’s the second time the St. Elizabeth’s request has been on the board’s agenda. The board was scheduled to vote on the proposal in December, but the hospital sought a postponement because three of the eight board members were absent. A hospital can seek only one postponement.

If approved, St. Elizabeth’s expects to have the new hospital finished by the end of 2017.

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