First reported 4/27/2010 4:05 p.m.

Judging by the crowd at village hall on Monday, you’d think there was a rock concert or baseball game in the council chambers. But the standing-room-only gathering was for people to voice their opinions about the potential sale of Oak Park’s largest private employer.

Droves of people showed up for the hearing Monday afternoon at Oak Park Village Hall, with not an empty seat to be found. The bulk of the crowd, or at least the 35 or so who spoke, was made up of hospital employees and supporters wearing dark stickers marked “YES!” to the sale, and supporters of a labor union wearing green stickers marked “Save our hospitals.”

Vanguard Health Systems – a for-profit company based in Nashville that owns 15 hospitals in four states – is looking to buy West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, along with its sister Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park. Chicago-based Resurrection Health Care owns the two hospitals and says it’s been forced to sell, with the two institutions losing a combined $166 million over the past five years.

But for Vanguard to close the deal, it first needs permission from the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board. And testimony at the hearing Monday will help the board to make its decisions, when it starts deliberating on June 8.

Those speaking or writing in favor of the sale included Oak Park Village President David Pope, River Forest Village President John Rigas and Oak Park’s current fire chief. On the other side, a labor union that’s trying to organize employees at the two hospitals, along with other community groups which say they are opposed to the sale, as it’s currently constituted.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (or AFSCME) Council 31 wants the review board to approve the sale only if Vanguard promises to keep the hospitals open for at least 10 years. Vanguard is only committing to keep them open for two years and to retaining employees for 60 days after the sale closes.

“This does not represent a serious commitment to our hospital,” said Kelly Beringer, an Oak Park resident and nurse at West Sub. “Two years is simply not enough time to assess current operations, identify and implement improvements and have a significant impact on profitability.”

AFSCME supporters pointed to Vanguard’s proposed purchase of the Detroit Medical Center system of seven hospitals. There, Vanguard has committed to keeping the hospitals open for 10 years and retaining employees at the same wages and benefits.

But Vanguard says the Detroit Medical Center purchase is a completely different package. Those hospitals have been running at a profit over the past seven years, and Vanguard was approached to bring its “significant access to capital” to help grow the system, according to materials passed out by Vanguard at the hearing.

In the proposed purchase from Resurrection, Vanguard is being brought in to keep the hospitals from closing. The company’s commitment in Detroit is also contingent on 15 years of tax breaks that it’s receiving from the state of Michigan, not the case when it buys the two local hospitals for a total of $41.45 million.

Robert Malgieri, a spokesman for AFSCME, says they feel the 10-year condition is fair, regardless of the circumstances.

“We just all along have been saying this is what the community wants and this is what the employees want, and we think the people of Oak Park and Melrose Park deserve the same commitment,” he said.

The union doesn’t currently represent any employees at West Sub or Westlake. They’ve been attempting for more than six years to organize employees there. Resurrection has said in the past that its employees aren’t interested, while AFSCME claims that workers have been intimidated and discouraged from organizing, a claim that Resurrection denies.

Patty Cormack, an Oak Park resident and nurse at West Sub, blasted AFSCME for getting involved in the sales transaction.

“I struggle to understand the involvement of organized labor in this matter since legally, they represent none of the parties involved,” she said. “Let me be clear, my co-workers and I are not contingents of this union, nor have we ever supported any of their theatrical protests or slanderous propaganda.”

Trip Pilgrim, chief development officer for Vanguard, emphasized that his company was approached about the purchase, and no other companies made an offer for the two local hospitals. He said Vanguard doesn’t buy hospitals to shut them down, and it has have a “track record” of investing in its institutions.

“Simply put, we do not buy hospitals to maintain the status quo or to close them,” Pilgrim said, acknowledging that it will be difficult to turn West Sub and Westlake around.

Vanguard also disputes accusations that it will cut down on charity care, as the company provided about $100 million in such care last year.

Anyone wishing to submit written testimony on the sale can send it to the Illinois Department of Public Health at 525 W. Jefferson St., Springfield, IL 62761 to the attention of Karen M. Hall by May 19. The board will start deliberating on June 8, and the two parties hope to close the sale by June 30.

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