For decades, Loretto Hospital in neighboring Austin has been classified as a safety net hospital. Rough translation: This institution serves a community of color, inequitably covered by private health insurance and facing chronic health issues long under-addressed.

Our view, as publisher of the Austin Weekly News, has been that Loretto is perpetually on the precipice financially, relying to a great and not surprising degree on funding through state and federal programs. And when payment on those programs was delayed for whatever reasons, we were told the hospital would skirt close to missing payrolls.

That made its habit of courting relationships with local elected state representatives and senators seem wise, if a bit sketchy. We’re going back to days when Austin native and Oak Park icon Phil Rock was state senate president, and he would allegedly make calls to agencies in Springfield to pry loose funds overdue to Loretto. 

Now, thanks to the powerful reporting coming from Block Club Chicago and the Better Government Association over recent months, we have seen repeated and appalling actions by this safety-net hospital in the ways it has diverted precious COVID vaccines off the West Side and into the arms of Trump Tower residents, upscale restaurant and jewelry retailers, and even congregants at the far suburban church of its president. These vaccine recipients were people whiter and far more privileged than Loretto’s immediate neighbors. 

Just last week, these two independent, nonprofit newsrooms unraveled a story right before our eyes, and it involves multiple elected officials who represent both Austin and also parts of Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. State Senator and Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford and, until recently, State Rep. LaShawn Ford have served on the Loretto board. And State Rep. Camille Lilly has worked at Loretto in marketing since long before she was elected to office. 

Ford had the good sense to leave the board in early spring after it failed to effectively discipline leadership for its abuse of the COVID vaccines.

The roles of the elected officials have not been a secret. The hospital’s ER was somewhat updated a decade ago and Loretto named it for Lightford. You can see her name over the door as you drive down the Ike. 

Board membership has had its perks, including Caribbean travel and campaign contributions. The travel is reportedly related to an insurance firm owned by the hospital. The campaign cash to Lightford has come from a major contractor at Loretto and is pushing $40K, according to Block Club and the BGA.

Perhaps Loretto is on less of a precipice and is more akin to an insider slush fund. We have regard for these elected officials. We have seen good work on the ground in Austin from Loretto Hospital. But a massive broom is necessary for both the executive suite and the board room. 

This safety net hospital has to be fully reoriented to its mission.

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