by Robert Becker for The Chicago Tribune

November 9, 1999

A grass-roots organization, founded by religious leaders, including the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, took its campaign to expand health care for the uninsured before a skeptical Cook County Board Monday.

Officials and supporters of United Power for Action and Justice, an amalgam of churches, labor unions and community groups, crowded into the County Board Room seeking a $20 million slice of the county's 2000 budget to provide primary care for 50,000 uninsured county residents.

Organization officials want to create a network of health-care providers who could give front-line treatment to the medically indigent.

The county runs 28 health-care clinics and three hospitals and spends nearly $700 million annually on medical care for the needy. But the group says those facilities only reach 30 percent of the indigent who are uninsured and more needs to be done.

"Cook County cannot solve this problem themselves," said Rev. Michael Nobel, pastor of Olivet Baptist Church on the South Side.

County officials offered a sympathetic but cool reception. Many board members seemed to agree with Commissioner Jerry Butler, who said the county was already carrying the lion's share of responsibility for treating the indigent.

"How much more do you expect this little body to do?" Butler asked officials of United Power for Action and Justice.

United Power officials have lobbied for months, packing recent hearings on the county budget and buttonholing commissioners to present their plan.

The group advocates a two-phase program, dubbed the Gilead Campaign for the Uninsured, that seeks access to health care for the county's uninsured.

The first phase would center on referring the uninsured to a network of private physicians, group medical practices, hospital outpatient clinics and community health facilities that would serve their primary medical needs. Most of the $20 million the group wants from the county would pay for those services.

The second phase has a more political and legislative slant. It would seek funds from the multibillion-dollar tobacco industry settlement to cover more uninsured people and try to expand Medicaid and provide incentives for small businesses to increase insurance coverage for their workers.

"The system is in place," said Mike Savage, chairman of the Gilead Campaign and chief executive officer of Sinai Family Health Centers. "We don't have to build new clinics. We just need to partner with those in the private system who stand willing to do more."

All the details have yet to be worked out, but proponents of the plan say they aren't interested in duplicating services already available or in taking money away from the county's Bureau of Health.

Savage said it's "unrealistic" to expect a single health-care system such as the county's to provide medical care for what he said is 1.3 million uninsured people in the Chicago area.

County commissioners expressed skepticism.

Noting the absence of details, Commissioner Herb Schumann said, "We don't have a clear idea of how the money is to be spent.

"I have more questions than answers."

Late Monday, United Power officials met with County Board President John Stroger to discuss their proposal.

Jack Beary, a spokesman for Stroger, said Stroger has held regular meetings with the group and has made it clear to them that "$20 million a year is not available."

But Beary said the talks will continue. "It's an ongoing dialogue," he said.

View article here