Citing staff shortage, Westlake Hospital is closing earlier than planned. Melrose Park mayor says owners 'lied to our community.'

2019-04-09 | Chicago Tribune

April 09-- Apr. 9--A Los Angeles-based hospital company angered the Melrose Park community Tuesday, announcing that it would close Westlake Hospital, months earlier than originally planned.

Pipeline Health said in a news release Tuesday that it would suspend services at the 230-bed hospital, which serves a large number of low-income patients, "due to concerns about its ability to continue maintaining a safe environment for patient care due primarily to declining staff rates."

The hospital still has patients there today, and is still seeing patients in its emergency room. But the hospital is not admitting new patients, and will work to discharge or transfer patients to other hospitals, said Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Pipeline. He said he could not give a timeframe over when this would happen.

"Our utmost priority is safety and quality of patient care," Jim Edwards, CEO of Pipeline Health, said in the release. "With declining staffing rates and more attrition expected, a temporary suspension of services is necessary to assure safe and sufficient operations. This action is being taken after considering all alternatives and with the best interest of our patients in mind."

Pipeline called the suspension of services temporary, but it's unclear whether the hospital will ever re-open. Pipeline said Tuesday that staffing rates at the hospital have continued to fall since it announced the hospital's imminent closure, forcing Pipeline to send employees from West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park to Westlake and rely on nurses from outside agencies.

Pipeline originally planned to close the hospital by July. It bought Westlake, Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago and West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park 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."

Melrose Park also filed a motion Monday for a temporary restraining order in Cook County Circuit Court to keep Pipeline from closing Westlake early.

In that motion, Melrose Park argues that Pipeline has 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 is scheduled to be heard in court later Tuesday.

Pipeline noted that it has also filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Melrose Park last month, which 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 2018 devastating net operating loss" 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.

More to come.

lschencker@chicagotribune.com