A few months after Pipeline Health closed Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, I traveled to the offices of Dr. Nabil Saleh, a pediatrician who has practiced at the hospital since 1978. 

Saleh’s offices were inside Westlake’s Professional Office Building. Although the hospital proper had shuttered, the office building adjacent to it was still open, quietly getting on with things in the shadows of Westlake’s emptiness. 

“It used to take less than an hour to get a result from a test done in this hospital when Westlake was open,” Saleh said back in January. “It’s 30 seconds between my office and the hospital. They would do the test and call me with the results in an hour. Now the patient has to take my order, go to another hospital to get the test done and the results will probably not be available for a day or two, which delays the diagnosis and the start of treatment. That could have an impact on the patient’s condition.” 

And more than likely, that patient is Black and Brown and poor. 

Last week, Wednesday Journal reported that Pipeline representatives have been telling lawmakers their continued operation of West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park, which they purchased along with Westlake and Weiss Memorial in Chicago last year, is contingent on more state funding. 

I don’t trust anything Pipeline says because the company has shown itself to be untrustworthy. Earlier this year, Pipeline paid Melrose Park $1.5 million related to a lawsuit the village filed shortly after the company closed Westlake. 

According to the lawsuit, Pipeline representatives lied to Melrose Park’s mayor, community members, and other elected officials about their intentions for the roughly century-old hospital, which was one of the only places in Proviso Township where the poor and indigent and homeless could go for low-cost care, particularly mental health care. 

Pipeline promised state regulators that they would keep the hospital open and affordable for at least a few more years — a promise they had to make in order for the state to sign-off on their purchase of the three hospitals, Melrose Park’s lawyers said. 

Not a month after finalizing the purchase, Pipeline announced the closure, throwing a whole community into chaos and darkness. But it wasn’t so much the closure itself that alarmed me. It was the way Pipeline went about its business. 

In the weeks leading up to the hospital’s closure, I spoke with a Westlake maintenance worker who said Pipeline routinely shorted his pay; a half-dozen physicians and nurses, Saleh included, who said they never even saw the face of a Pipeline representative before the surprise announcement that the absentee California company was closing their hospital weeks after buying it; and a state lawmaker who said that when he complained to one of Pipeline’s principals about the company’s apparent deceptiveness, the guy reportedly hung up on him. 

Pipeline also allegedly alerted EMTs to bypass Westlake’s emergency room and moved vital equipment from the Melrose Park hospital to West Suburban in the middle of the night. They kept employees in the dark about the pending closure and responded defensively when community members so much as inquired about how the hospital’s closure might impact their physical health. 

I’m currently reading Chris Hayes’ insightful 2012 book Twilight of the Elites, in which he describes what he calls “elite pathology.” 

Our country has produced a class of high-achieving 1 percenters who are “less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision-making,” Hayes writes. 

This is true of Republicans and Democrats (albeit Republicans much, much, much, much more). Liberals and conservatives. White elites and Black elites. 

Pipeline was able to get away with the stunt they pulled on Melrose Park because of a deregulatory law signed by private equity millionaire and right-wing Republican former governor Bruce Rauner. 

One of Pipeline’s principals — the guy who allegedly hung up on the state lawmaker — is Dr. Eric Whitaker, a millionaire and very close friend of former president Barack Obama, also a millionaire, who blessed Chicago with millionaire Rahm Emanuel, who closed dozens of mental health clinics and schools in Black and Brown communities with Pipelinian abandon. 

This elite pathology is what, perhaps more than anything, caused a Donald Trump presidency. And if we want to prevent a Trump second term, we have to deal with the pathology’s root causes. And one of those root causes is the monetization of everything, even medical care.

“Health care has been monetized in a way that has caused a breakdown between physicians and patients,” Dr. Saleh told me. “So the physicians and nurses became only providers, and the patients became enrollees.” 

Saleh said he knows many pediatricians who are quitting, frustrated about losing control over their ability to provide decent, humane care that doesn’t require them to treat people like data points and units of value. 

The doctor said he graduated from Alexandria University in Egypt, “one of the oldest universities in the world,” and has practiced medicine in Africa and England. So he has a certain distance from this “elite pathology.” 

The U.S., he said, needs something similar to England’s National Healthcare System, in which “everyone is equal when it comes to health care and the standard of care is uniform and applies to the prime minister as it applies to anyone in the street.

“The U.S. is a totally different system than many of the developed countries in the world,” he said. “Even Canada has a form of nationalized health care, which makes access easier. It’s not luxurious, but it’s more than adequate, it’s timely, it’s cost-effective and it’s equal.” 

That idea, in our great American meritocracy, is what our electable politicians might call impractical. Which is precisely why we need to reimagine our politics. 

Westlake closing caused West Sub worries

The closure of Westlake Hospital immediately prompted worries that West Suburban would follow suit. 

On Sept. 11, 2019, former Westlake employees filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Pipeline, claiming the company violated the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act by not providing notice of termination to more than 500 Westlake employees at least 60 days in advance.

"Pipeline Health's flagrant manipulation of the system endangers not only the former patients and employees of Westlake Hospital, but also everyone in the Chicago and Oak Park communities, especially those that currently rely on Weiss and West Suburban for health care and employment," the lawsuit claimed. 

The lawsuit also accused Pipeline of creating a shell company "for the sole purpose of acquiring — and then immediately closing — Westlake Hospital" as part of a strategy developed to benefit Pipeline's investors, despite Pipeline officials telling the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board that the Westlake would stay open for at least two years after the purchase. 

A complaint filed Nov. 11, 2019, stated that Pipeline hospital had no interest in operating Westlake and decided to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy instead of spending the money to run the hospital.

The class-action lawsuit is still pending, according to attorney Ari Scharg of Edelsen PC, who is representing the former Westlake employees.

The class-action lawsuit is just one in a string of lawsuits filed against Pipeline. After Pipeline reneged on the promise to keep Westlake open, the village of Melrose Park filed a state lawsuit on March 7, 2019 accusing the company of "fraud" and "conspiracy." 

The village of Melrose Park filed a second lawsuit against Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board and Pipeline, challenging the board's decision to approve the closure of Westlake. Scharg represented Melrose Park in both cases. Pipeline agreed to pay the village of Melrose Park $1.5 million to settle the two lawsuits. 

Scharg has represented parties with grievances against Pipeline in four different lawsuits, including the filing of two whistleblower cases, wherein Pipeline terminated the employment of people providing information about Westlake's closure to Melrose Park. 

The whistleblower cases were dismissed by agreement of the parties. Scharg has also represented five former Westlake employees in front of the National Labor Relations Board. 

A closure of West Suburban Medical Center, Scharg said, would be "terrible."

"Their whole thing with closing Westlake was that West Sub is so close and that there's not going to be any absence of healthcare options in the area because of the proximity of West Sub," Scharg told Wednesday Journal.

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