Hospital Workers, Gang Members Unite to Save Safety-Net Hospital

Emma Foehringer Merchant

Community members rally to save Chicago's Roseland Community Hospital.

Hospital workers and community members won a reprieve yesterday to the closure of Chicago’s Roseland Community Hospital, which officials announced this week was on the brink of shutting down due to financial difficulties. Following several days of demonstrations and vigils, supporters of the hospital were greeted Wednesday with the news that the hospital would be offered $350,000 in temporary emergency funds from the governor’s office to continue operating.

On Tuesday, SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana, which represents 200 of the 560 hospital workers who would have lost their jobs, rallied to present the governor with a letter and a plea to keep the 162-bed hospital open. What are you going to do more to a community to beat it down than to take one of the final institutions that the resident has to depend on? Where are patients supposed to go?” asked April Verrett, Executive Vice President of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Illinois & Indiana, as a crowd of supporters gathered on the steps of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s downtown Chicago office.

The funding offered by the state will provide a stop-gap, but the hospital remains in dire financial straits. Sharon Thurman, a vice president at Roseland, said that the hospital had requested a total of $7 million to pay down debts to its vendors, and requires at least $1 million from the state to continue operating. Thurman told DNAinfo that the hospital could still close two weeks from now without additional assistance.

Prior to the governor’s announcement, organizers held a vigil as the hospital temporarily stopped accepting patients on Wednesday. A march of supporters visited several areas around the community, including the site of a recent shooting.

Roseland, a safety-net hospital on Chicago’s gun violence-plagued south side, is the only hospital with an acute care center and an emergency room within five miles. At Tuesday’s press conference, Tavis Grant, the National Field Director for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Bishop, said that 28,000 community members visit its emergency room annually.

Where is the mother supposed to take her asthmatic child who’s having an asthma attack when her child can’t breathe? … Is she supposed to get to Stroger with no Red Line to take her? Is she supposed to go to the University of Chicago that has already said they don’t want the patients?” Verrett asked.

In addition to support from community and religious leaders, anti-closing actions have drawn participation from members of the Black Disciples gang. Reverend Philip Cusick, a Roseland employee, says that he was approached this week by a group of about 20 Black Disciples members who wanted to get involved in the fight to stave off the hospital’s closure. Recently, former Black Disciple members have spoken out about the original message of the gang to unite communities in areas of Chicago often plagued by violence. Black Disciple co-founder Arthur Stringer called the potential loss of the hospital a tragedy” and noted the importance of Roseland hospital in maintaining safety in the area.

We have come to try to help save Roseland hospital, because it has saved lives. And I feel if we lose that, it’s another part of genocide [against the black community]. … It’s bad enough that we’re out here harming each other, and then for the hospital to close, they can help people that are innocent,” Black Disciple co-founder Dirk Acklin said Tuesday. 

On Monday, Roseland CEO Dian Powell claimed that the state owed Roseland $6 million for construction of a new adolescent behavioral health unit. But she resigned Tuesday, and Thurman said that this claim had been a mistake (CBS News reports that Powell may have been forced out amidst allegations of mismanagement). The state also denies owing Roseland money.

Community members emphasize that whether the fault lies with the state or with hospital management, Roseland’s closure would remove a crucial lifeline for South Side residents. The bottom line to this whole situation is keep the hospital open, then figure out what you need to do to sustain it,” said hospital worker and community resident Yasmin Champagne. We need to keep it open for the community, and it’s not the community’s fault that Roseland is in its demise.”

Emma Foehringer Merchant is a summer 2013 editorial intern.
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