Cook County’s plan to drastically shrink services at two public hospitals shifted into higher gear Monday with the announcement that 138 hospital nursing jobs will be eliminated.

CHICAGO (AP) — Cook County’s plan to drastically shrink services at two public hospitals shifted into higher gear Monday with the announcement that 138 hospital nursing jobs will be eliminated. Provident Hospital on Chicago’s South Side will no longer accept ambulance runs starting Tuesday and will see the elimination of 37 nursing positions. Oak Forest Hospital in the south suburb of Oak Forest will see more than 100 nursing staff reductions as the county proceeds with plans to convert the facility to a primary care center, pending a state board’s approval. Both hospitals are part of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, which is following a strategic plan to reduce costly inpatient services at the hospitals to make room for more outpatient care. Some nursing cuts will take effect by the end of the month and others will happen later this year, said health system spokesman Lucio Guerrero. The county plans to cut the Provident Hospital nursing staff to 63 positions and the Oak Forest Hospital nursing staff to 23 positions. The scaling down of emergency services at Provident Hospital initially was planned for last month and first reported by The Associated Press. But health officials delayed the action to give other South Side hospitals time to prepare. Since 1986, six South Side hospitals have closed, building pressure on remaining institutions to serve low-income and uninsured patients and straining emergency rooms. Provident Hospital’s emergency staff will continue to see approximately 36,000 walk-in patients, but will no longer accept ambulances. In a stopgap measure, nearby University of Chicago Medical Center plans to increase its doctor and nurse staffing in its emergency department as it braces for an increase in patients who would have been taken by ambulance to Provident. The University of Chicago, which already was struggling to address its emergency department crowding, also plans to keep an urgent care section of its ER open overnight that has been closed in the evenings. The medical center expects eight to 10 more ambulances daily — as much as a 50 percent increase. "We’re disappointed the county made the decision to end ambulance runs at Provident," said Dr. Richard Baron, the medical center’s dean for clinical practice. Baron said the medical center is willing to help Cook County keep Provident open as a full-service hospital, possibly staffed with University of Chicago doctors. "We’re still hoping to engage them" with the idea, Baron said. Chicago Alderman Willie Cochran lamented the end of ambulance runs at Provident Hospital, which he said will affect people in his ward and add stress to nonprofit hospitals on the South Side. "How far are we going to reduce the value of people’s lives?" Cochran asked. "Do we put such a strain on other hospitals that we put them out of business?" Nurses got letters about the staff reductions two weeks ago and county administrators started working with the union Monday to place nurses elsewhere, Guerrero said. Nurses will be able to apply for vacant positions in the health system or bump others with less seniority at the hospital where they work. Many of the nurses may be qualified to fill 132 vacancies in the health system, Guerrero said. The hospital nurses are taking the news hard, said National Nurses Organizing committee Midwest director Leslie Curtis. "Nurses are calling it the Valentine’s Day massacre," she said. The union represents 1,200 Cook County nurses. Their contract expired in 2008. A strike vote in late December was approved by more than 85 percent of the nurses. No strike date has been set. The plan to end hospital care at the Oak Forest facility must be approved by the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board. The board plans to consider the county’s application at a meeting March 22. The board is accepting written comments until March 2. Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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