ROCKFORD — Members of the Illinois Health Facilities & Review Board agreed to allow Mercyhealth to close 70 surgical beds on its Rockton Avenue campus after a flip-flopped vote.
An initial vote of 5-2 failed to garner the needed six votes — by law a majority of 11 board seats, two of which are vacant — to approve the closure. At the request of Mercyhealth, the board reconsidered. It then took another vote after several unusual off-camera breaks during an open virtual meeting.
The measure eventually was approved 6-0 on a second vote, with board member Antoinette Hardy-Waller who previously voted “no” abstaining, board member Kenneth Burnett changing his vote from “no” to “yes,” and two Rockford-area members — former Rockford Health System CEO Gary Kaatz and Winnebgo County Health Administrator Sandra Martell — recusing themselves.
Rockford hospitals: Here’s how an Illinois law makes proposed hospital cuts in Rockford likely
Board members on several occasions expressed confusion over whether they had authority under the law to deny the exemption and several said they were voting to approve the measure despite deep reservations.
However Mark Silberman, an attorney representing Mercyhealth and a former general counsel for the state board, said the law requires the board to approve the closure if it finds that all required applications and requested information was provided.
Board members questioned why Mercyhealth would close 70 surgical beds but leave in place four ICU beds on the Rockton Avenue campus. They also were concerned about transportation difficulties low-income residents have in reaching medical services at the Riverside Boulevard campus.
But Mercyhealth Chief Medical Officer John Dorsey said closing 70 medical-surgical beds at Javon Bea Hospital—Rockton Avenue is part of a new vision for Mercyhealth’s hospital campuses in Rockford that recasts the west side facility as one dedicated to outpatient services.
“Our vision had to change to meet the reality,” Dorsey said.
Residents of the west side say their local hospital has been gutted with reduced or eliminated emergency room, inpatient and mental health services since the opening of Mercyhealth’s more than $500 million hospital in 2019 on Riverside Boulevard.
Living in the home where she was born and raised blocks from the Rockton Avenue hospital, Dorothy Helman, 78, says she is deeply disappointed by what has happened to the hospital once known as Rockford Memorial where doctors saved her life in 2005 as she went into septic shock.
Now the hospital system’s “palace,” as she calls it, at Riverside and Interstate 90, is located 9 miles and more than 25 minutes from her home making it difficult to reach especially in an emergency. Few of the services she said residents had counted on at the Rockton Avenue facility remain.
More headlines: Rockford family describes final ‘terrifying’ hours in Ukraine
“It’s the west side hospital, the only west side hospital, and there is a bus line that easy for people who don’t have transportation to reach it,” Helman said. “I live eight blocks from it and it takes me two minutes to get to the emergency room. It takes me 25 to 30 minutes to get to the palace.”
Mercyhealth president and CEO Javon Bea said that with advanced surgical and technological capabilities, the original vision was that the sickest patients would be treated at the Javon Bea Hospital—Riverside campus when it opened in 2019. Those who needed to be hospitalized, but would not need advanced care, would be treated on the Rockton Avenue campus.
But Mercyhealth found that most patients admitted to the Rockton Avenue campus were soon being transferred to the Riverside campus where there were obstetricians, more specialists and better equipment, Bea said.
Soon, Bea said fewer and fewer patients were being admitted on the Rockton campus. And he said financial losses for the hospital system reached $127 million.
Despite concerns raised by opponents to the closure that it is the latest step on a systematic march to close the Rockton Avenue facility, Bea said the hospital system has no plans to close it and in fact needs the campus.
Bea said the west side campus is now a center for outpatient procedures, cancer treatment, gastroenterology and many other medical treatments.
“Those who disagree with our plan to continue providing high quality care are going to want to distract the board with claims that this is part of a bigger plan to close our Rockton Avenue site entirely, but nothing can be further from the truth,” Bea said.
Rockford officials: 8-month delay will not jeopardize major downtown project
Bea said the hospital system has invested $30 million into renovations at the hospital, $4.3 million into improved oncology services and $4.2 million into a new gastroenterology suite among millions in other improvements.
“It is safer and better patient care for Mercyhealth to consolidate its inpatients at the newer Riverside building site where there is a wide array of specialty physicians and technical capabilities,” Bea said.
“Even sophisticated procedures are now being done on an outpatient basis. Thus, we are consolidating our hospital outpatient-based and clinic-based outpatient services at our Rockton Avenue hospital building.”