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Battle over proposed Crystal Lake and Huntley hospitals roars on for five hours

Updated: November 16, 2011 10:56AM

CRYSTAL LAKE — Through five hours, 73 witnesses and 71 orally read letters, testimony poured in Friday for and against the idea of building a hospital in Crystal Lake.

The public hearing by the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board often sounded like a debate between “Mercy Health System ought to build a hospital in Crystal Lake” and “No, it would be better if Centegra Health System built a hospital in Huntley.”

But officials from Sherman Hospital in Elgin and other existing hospitals that serve Crystal Lake and Huntley residents reminded state board members why they had tentatively voted in June not to approve either new hospital.

Trent Gordon, an executive of Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, used this “plague against both your houses” idea to create some humor when he became the second-to-last witness to speak.

“I believe we have all reached an agreement here today,” Gordon said. “Centegra argues that the Mercy proposal should not be built. Mercy argues that the Centegra proposal should not be built. I agree with everyone.”

Review board General Counsel Frank Urso said board members probably will make final decisions about both proposals when they meet in December.

Centegra wants to build a 128-bed, $233 million hospital at Reed and Haligus roads in Huntley. Despite board members’ 8-1 vote that they “intend to deny the request,” that proposal remains unchanged since the board considered it in June. Since then, Centegra officials have submitted new evidence and arguments to the board on paper. But because their proposal has not changed, no new public hearing will be held in Huntley.

Mercy originally wanted permission to build a 128-bed, $199 million hospital at Route 31 and Three Oaks Road in Crystal Lake. But after the board’s 8-1 “intend to deny” vote on that plan in June, Mercy slimmed down its proposal to a building with just 70 beds at a cost of just $115 million. Technically, Friday’s hearing was intended only to consider the merits of Mercy’s amended proposal.

Resident support

Mercy officials argued that their new, cheaper plan answers board members’ complaints that there isn’t enough potential business to support a Crystal Lake hospital without causing major financial damage and job losses to existing hospitals. The latter include Sherman, Good Shepherd and existing Centegra hospitals in McHenry and Woodstock.

Thirteen of the witnesses were Mercy employees who read 71 letters from residents endorsing the Crystal Lake plan. The other 60 who spoke were divided about 24 pro-Mercy and 36 anti-Mercy. They included hospital employees and executives, former patients and doctors.

Deputy Crystal Lake Fire Chief Paul DeRaedt said a Mercy hospital would cut some ambulance run times in half “when seconds count.” But his boss, Mayor Aaron Shepley, who is an employee of Centegra, argued that building in Huntley would make more sense.

Shepley said Mercy’s new plan is almost identical to one it made in 2003, which was approved by the state board but fell apart in a bribery scandal. An attorney working for Mercy and a building contractor who expected to get the contract to build the Crystal Lake hospital confessed to bribing a member of the board, though no Mercy Health System executives were charged. In 2004, a judge canceled the Crystal Lake approval, partly because it called for only 70 beds and was thus smaller than any urban hospital the board previously had allowed.

“These are one and the same projects,” Shepley said. “This smaller plan looks like it was cut and pasted from the 2003 plan” and “the only time anybody ever said yes to that was when there was a $1.5 million bribe involved.”

Mercy CEO Javon Bea noted that during the same June meeting when the state board took its preliminary votes, the board had approved a plan for a hospital in Shiloh that also will have fewer than 100 beds. So the 100-bed minimum is “a guideline, not a rule,” Mercy Vice President Dan Colby said.

Arguing that Crystal Lake needs a new hospital, several former patients told of going to the emergency room at Centegra McHenry Hospital and being held in a hallway because no regular McHenry beds were vacant.

Hospitals oppose

But Centegra and Sherman officials argued Friday that the 70-bed size is legally too small under an Illinois guideline that new hospitals cannot be allowed unless they have at least 100 beds or are in a rural area.

Sherman President Rick Floyd said health-care reform will reduce the demand for in-patient hospital care. “America’s health care system is the most expensive in the world by a long shot, and hospitals are the most expensive part,” which can be reduced by not building more hospitals than needed, Floyd said.

Centegra CEO Michael Eesley said Centegra Woodstock Hospital is only 1½ miles away from the Crystal Lake city limits and Centegra McHenry Hospital only 2½ miles away.

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