Doctors, nurses, and staff joined neighbors and elected officials at a demonstration Wednesday in Bronzeville to protest the looming closure of Mercy Hospital.
“It is heartless to propose this closure in the middle of a pandemic,” State Representative Theresa Mah told reporters as the crowd gathered on several corners near the hospital’s entrance.
Mercy, Chicago’s oldest chartered hospital, has served the near South Side of Chicago for nearly 170 years. The hospital announced at the end of July that it would close early next year, citing operating losses of $4 million a month. Mercy’s parent, Trinity Health, took over the hospital in 2012. Trinity, a private Catholic not-for-profit healthcare company based out of Michigan with 93 hospitals in 22 states, boasted $18.3 billion in revenue in 2018, and a total of $26.2 billion in assets.
Mercy serves a population of mainly low-income, elderly, and people of color. Its closure could be devastating to the community, as the nearest hospitals are several miles away.
“The nearest full-service hospitals are on average five to ten miles away,” said Mah. “Now five miles might not sound like much to you, but for the population I represent, Chinese immigrants, many of whom are limited English proficient; senior citizens who are transportation-challenged; and low-income families that rely on the services of this community safety net hospital, five miles may as well be a different planet.”
Jitu Brown, a community organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and director of the Journey Justice Alliance, said that his group and others would “organize their backsides off” to fight the deterioration of the quality of life and services in the neighborhood.
“The foundation of any nation are the institutions that lay the structure for the people’s development. You build community by building those quality of life institutions, you sabotage community by killing those institutions,” said Brown. “In the black community on the south and west sides, we have school deserts, we have food deserts, and now we have health care deserts? That is called sabotage of quality of life.”
Should Mercy close, it would be the third hospital to close in the Chicagoland area, all of which serve neighborhoods with large populations of people of color. Black and brown communities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. That hospitals continue to prioritize profits over people is harming already vulnerable and marginalized communities, and is literally killing people.
“The way we finance health care in the United States is upside down and it’s not based on community need, it’s based on profits,” Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center, told WTTW shortly after the announcement of Mercy’s planned closure. “The hospitals that are profitable stay open, while those that serve the sickest and the poorest patients have a much harder time. All three of these hospitals serve Black populations and Black neighborhoods, and it’s part of when people talk about structural racism.”
Hospital officials say that Mercy plans to focus on outpatient care in the neighborhood.
“What patients on the South Side need is more access to outpatient care. That was the focus of our Southside Transformation merger and it remains our focus looking forward to the future,” read a statement from Mercy published by the Chicago Tribune. “The current approach to health care on the South Side today is causing rising disparities in outcomes of health that need to be addressed with preventive care. We encourage leaders across the city and the state to take the bold steps necessary not just to maintain the status quo that is perpetuating these disparities, but to do what is needed to truly transform the system so that it works for the patients we serve.”
State Representative Lamont J. Robinson said that despite an earlier proposed merger with several other hospitals that failed, there is still time for officials to insist on a plan that doesn’t leave the community “high and dry.”
“We can insist that the hospitals return to the bargaining table and spell out a revised merger plan in great detail and consider ownership other than Trinity with accountability, transparency and a commitment to locate on the South Side,” said Robinson. “We can bring together the Chicago Community Trust and the other largest hospitals of Chicago including University of Chicago, Rush, Northwestern to help find the resources and expertise of a hospital group to take over Mercy.”
Should Mercy’s closure proceed, Robinson said that the land should only be used as a hospital for the neighborhood. “We must guarantee the jobs of the 1700 who have continued to give their all during this pandemic,” he said. “We can insist that if Mercy closes, this land can only be used for the purposes of a full-fledged hospital.”