Judge grants Westlake Hospital a reprieve, hours after owners announce it was closing
April 10-- Apr. 10--In an abrupt reversal, the owners of Westlake Hospital must keep it open for now, a Cook County Circuit Court judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge Eve Reilly granted Melrose Park a temporary restraining order to prevent Westlake, Los Angeles-based Pipeline Health from closing the hospital before a state board reviews the owner's application to close the facility later this month. The restraining order prevents Pipeline from cutting the hospital's services or staff any further until the review board has had a chance to consider the application.
Earlier Tuesday, a Pipeline spokesman had said that Westlake would no longer admit new patients and would work to discharge and transfer current patients. Pipeline said that declining staff levels were compromising patient care and safety.
Reilly, however, ruled in Melrose Park's favor.
The judge said any potential harm caused to Melrose Park by the hospital's early demise outweighs the financial harm to Westlake of keeping the hospital open longer.
"I'm elated,"said Tamara Venturella, an emergency department nurse at the hospital. She said the hospital's services are important to the community.
Matthew Crowl, an attorney for Pipeline, told the judge after the ruling that Westlake simply does not have the staff to operate at its previous levels. He said Pipeline would appeal.
Westlake workers and community members cheered the temporary restraining order.
Dr. Nabil Saleh, a pediatrician at the hospital and Westlake board member, said patient safety had never been at risk.
"I feel very safe," Saleh said. "I would never put my patients in a place where I feel it's not safe."
He said the hospital's closure would create hardships for its patients, many of whom are underserved minorities who live near the facility. He said the mother of one of his patients, a baby born prematurely, walks back and forth from the hospital several times a day to feed and cuddle her child.
Several other hospitals are within a few miles of Westlake, but hospital supporters say they don't provide all the same services and wouldn't be as convenient for patients.
Pipeline originally planned to close the hospital by July. It bought Westlake, Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago and West Suburban Medical Center for $70 million in January, pledging at the time to save all the hospitals. But weeks later, it announced it would close Westlake, saying that its financial losses had exceeded projections and that it had to close the hospital to keep the two other hospitals sustainable.
The move sparked outrage among community leaders, as did Tuesday's announcement.
Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico accused Pipeline of trying to make an end-run around the state's official process for closing hospitals. Pipeline's application to close Westlake is scheduled to go before the state Health Facilities and Services Review Board on April 30. Though the board can't deny the application, it could defer the application given pending litigation over the closure, filed by Melrose Park.
"Eric Whitaker and Pipeline are doubling down on the deceit that has plagued our community since they purchased Westlake Hospital in January," Serpico said in a statement Monday evening, when rumors first began to circulate about a possible early closure of the hospital. Whitaker is a prominent Chicagoan and part-owner of Pipeline, who was tasked with turning around the three hospitals.
"Whitaker and Pipeline lied to our community when they said that they would keep this vital safety net hospital open," Serpico said. "Whitaker and Pipeline now plan to close Westlake Hospital before the state has even held the final hearing."
In Melrose Park's motion, which was filed Monday, village officials argued that Pipeline had created its own staffing issues by telling nurses to find new jobs, firing temporary agency nurses, instituting a hiring freeze and transferring staff and equipment out of the hospital. That motion was heard in court later Tuesday.
Pipeline noted that last month it had also filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Melrose Park that accused Pipeline and two of its leaders of lying about their plans to close the hospital so they wouldn't face opposition when purchasing it. Pipeline said in its release Tuesday that it didn't know the full extent of Westlake's operating loss for 2018, which it called "devastating," until after it applied to the state to buy the hospital. Westlake had a net operating loss of $14 million in 2018, according to Pipeline.
Melrose Park community members have also taken their complaints to lawmakers who are running a bill this session that would allow the governor to reverse decisions on hospital closures made by the state Health Facilities and Services Review Board. That bill would also require the board to hold off on approving applications for closure in situations where litigation is pending.