by Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
The averted closing of Aurora Sinai Medical Center and potential negative fallout on the quality, availability and affordability of health care for low-income Black Milwaukeeans was spotlighted at a recent forum sponsored by the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin (BHCW) and the Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP.
Held at the Wisconsin African American Women’s Center, 320 W. Vliet Street, the well attended forum featured representatives from the medical community and government who addressed the economic, political and cultural challenges faced by health care providers.
The panel included: George P. Hinton, president of Aurora Sinai Medical Center; Dr. Bruce L. Van Cleave, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Aurora Health Care, Dr. Tito Izard, president and CEO of Milwaukee Health Services, Inc.; and Debra Standridge, president of the North Market for St. Joseph, Elmbrook Memorial and the Wisconsin Heart Hospitals, all of which are part of the Wheaton-Franciscan family of hospitals.
Also on the panel were 10th District Alderman Michael Murphy, who is chair of the Common Council’s Finance and Personnel Committee, and Bevan Baker, director of the city’s Health Department. Both represented the city’s interests in affordable health care.
Dr. Patricia McManus, president and CEO of the BHCW and James Hall, president of the Milwaukee Branch NAACP, were the moderators.
The panelists shared there views on the state of health care–which many observers see as being in a state of crisis–as well as the impact Sinai and St. Joseph have on the healthcare landscape for low-income families. There was also a question and answer period with pre-written questions on the status of Sinai and health care for people of color from audience members that were read by McManus and Hall.
Noting the forum was not “a forum of blame,” McManus stressed the need for the gathered medical and health institutions and city government to create partnerships that guarantees continued health care for the community.
McManus listed the number of public operated hospitals that closed in the last 30-plus years in Milwaukee, which include Mesconcordia and Doyne (County) hospitals, that were located in the heart of the central city and served predominately Black and low-income people. She also mentioned St. Michaels Hospital’s closing, which Standridge later noted Wheaton-Franciscan still has a commitment to the area the hosptial served. There is a primary care center on the spot once occupied by the hospital serving the surrounding neighborhood and expanding its facility.
The BHCW president added the challenge for the community was repairing a crumbling safety net and developing ways to maintain it in the face of rising health costs driven by individuals who don’t practice preventative health, nor have a primary care physician and wait till the last moment to deal with serious personal health issues.
Both Hinton and Van Cleave reassured the community regarding the status of Aurora Sinai, which was reportedly on the brink of closing its doors in the face of projected losses of $30 million in 2012. Last year, Sinai lost $20 million. If Sinai had closed it would have been one less health care resource for the central city and would have placed considerable pressure on St. Joseph Hospital, which Standridge said during the forum, doesn’t have the capacity to handle all central city patients.
It was later noted it takes the resources of both Sinai and St. Joseph to adequately serve the central city.
“We have enough hospitals; we just don’t have enough primary care and wellness initiatives,” Hinton said.
The Sinai Medical Center president stressed the need for health care providers to move their resources “to where people need them. Too many resources are in medical centers and not in the community.”
Mayor Tom Barrett, who made a brief appearance at the forum and spoke on the issue of available and affordable care echoed Hinton, noting that too many health centers are located outside the community and city in affluent suburban communities that have hospital rooms with empty beds.
Van Cleave said it was important the community knows how to use the health care system so as to ascertain what works and what doesn’t work for them. The Aurora CMO also stressed the need for increasing the community’s use of primary care, adding he wants Aurora and Sinai to work with the community toward that end.
Izard of MHSI said greater access to medical and health information has made for more informed consumers. But, he said, the Black community must take greater advantage of the information and use it to increase the number of positive health outcomes.
Izard said community based clinics must “help individuals, help families, help neighbors, help the community. We have to do things differently as clinics to serve people who are in a more precarious economic climate.”
As an example, the MHSI president and CEO said the clinic has expanded its hours and is now opened on Saturdays.
City Health Commissioner Baker said the community must have a total health system in order to determine how sick or well the community is.
“If they go through a system of care, (the question then becomes) will the patients become better?” Baker asked. “Given all the diseases that ravish our community, we need to reform the way people get care so Milwaukee will have one of the healthiest cities in the nation.”
Stressing the need for a safety net with a bottom for a system that has no bottom, Baker said city government must have a role–with the business leaders and the community–in discussing and finding solutions that improve community health care with better health outcomes.
“(And) there needs to be the same type of enthusiasm for healthcare that there is for the NCAA tournament.
“The goal is improving health outcomes and reducing health disparities,” Baker continued. “I don’t want to avert a crisis just to be back hear holding another forum.”
Alderman Murphy echoed what Izard said about the community being educated to take charge of their health and health outcomes. He also noted the misuse of emergency rooms by many low-income individuals who should be utilizing primary care facilities.
“But what are the options for a single mother with three kids attending three different schools, who doesn’t have a car and has little income?” Murphy asked. “Where else can she go but a hospital ER?”
Murphy said there may come a time when all the hospitals and clinics represented at the forum will have to pool there resources and place them in an area of great need…the community.
“All of us will be impacted by this (healthcare) crisis regardless of economic status,” the alderman said. “Disease doesn’t recognize color, income status, or where you live. All of us will be impacted.”
Murphy commented on the status of BadgerCare, the state’s health insurance program that provides health coverage to low-income, uninsured families with children under the age of 19 who are nor eligible for Medicaid and who are uninsured.
The alderman said Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin must speak out on the changes in BadgerCare in which 64,000 people, including over 29,000 children, would be kicked off the program. Over 260,000 people remaining on the program would have there benefits reduced and pay higher copays.
The proposed changes to the program require federal approval, which has not been received, leaving many needy families in limbo as to how much of an impact the final changes will have on their lives.
Saying he wasn’t optimistic the state will do the right thing, Murphy said board members of area hospitals have the ability to affect positive change in healthcare. “They have the power to influence government.
“We must make noise in Madison and speakout by voting and supporting our legislators who care and want to preserve the safety net.”
On a question about mental health reform and if the needs of mental health patients are being met, Milwaukee County Supervisor Willie Johnson, who is a member of a county board committee addressing the issue, said there ois an ongoing redesign process of the county’s mental health system, which calls for a new mental health facility.
However Johnson said the redesign is a work in progress “that’s not going to happen overnight,” adding funds are not available to pay for the facility’s construction.