Last month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker gathered with other lawmakers at West Suburban Medical Center, 3 Erie St., for a press conference about the passage of the Health Care and Human Services Reform Act.
In a statement, Pritzker’s office said the legislation, which is part of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’s wide-ranging Four Pillars agenda, “builds upon significant administration efforts toward health equity.”
The legislation, Pritzker stated, creates a Community Health Workers program, which would include training and certification, and requires the Health Facilities and Services Review Board to conduct a racial equity impact assessment for all future hospital closure applications that is publicly viewable.
The law would also create commissions to study statewide policy proposals to eliminate systemic racism, among other features of the bill.
For two nurses at the Oak Park hospital, however, equity is more than a notion, it’s an everyday struggle.
“I’ve always wanted to come back into my community and start a nursing program,” said Evelyn Young-Huff, an emergency room nurse at West Suburban who recently opened her own certified nursing assistant (CNA) training school in Broadview.
“I was a CNA,” Young-Huff said during an interview last month. “When I was going through nursing school, my CNA training helped me through and it’s helped me throughout my career.”
Young-Huff, a longtime CNA instructor at area colleges, said she hopes to bring her perspective as a Black woman who grew up in the area to the culturally specific struggles of the students who enroll at her school.
Opening the school, she said, has been its own battle — one often fought with Pritzker’s administration. Young-Huff said despite the need for more cultural competence in CNA training — particularly when 1 in 3 CNA’s are Black women, according to U.S. census data — minority-owned schools like hers aren’t adequately supported.
Young-Huff said that her path toward acquiring the necessary approval to operate her school from the Illinois Board of Higher Education was littered with unnecessary obstacles, many from the IBHE itself.
For instance, she said the agency held up the approval process for two years even though the board already had her documentation. On top of fighting to even open, Young-Huff said she’s had to fund her school out of savings she’s accumulated by working full-time as a nurse.
When reached for comment last month, a spokesperson for the agency did not directly respond to comments about Young-Huff’s situation and instead provided general information on the licensure process.
Young-Huff said she hopes that the federal and state funding trickles down to programs like hers.
“We need the funding to help us out,” she said. “If we had the funding, we’d be able to add more programs and more vocations.”
Kisha Stansberry, Young-Huff’s niece who is working on her nursing degree at Northwestern and who helps her aunt out at the school, said communities of color could benefit from more caretakers who are formally trained, particularly by culturally competent instructors like her aunt.
“A lot of people are caregivers to a relative and they get paid by the state, which requires them to have no training,” Stansberry said last month.
Sylvia Williams, a nurse director at West Suburban and a longtime Austin resident, said she’s excited about the new legislation, but anxious to see how the funds are allocated. She said hopefully, the law means more resources for safety net institutions like West Suburban, whose patient population is 74 percent Black and 11 percent Hispanic, according to data provided by a hospital spokesperson.
Around 61 percent of the hospital’s patients live on the West Side, roughly 29 percent are at or below poverty level and 20 percent are uninsured, the data shows.
Williams said she hopes more resources will allow the hospital to build up a robust primary care system on the West Side, so that fewer people are showing up in the emergency room with non-life threatening conditions that could be better handled by primary care physicians during routine clinic visits.
Williams said the hospital often has a difficult time recruiting patient care technicians, so collaborating with programs like the one Young-Huff offers may be worth exploring.
Williams said she also hopes more funding and resources are poured into the hospital’s efforts to reach out to senior citizens who may need assistance booking doctor’s appointments, traveling to receive treatment or who may be homebound and in need of a doctor to come to them.
“We have a lot of people being well taken care of by their families and at home, but sometimes they can’t get to that clinic visit, so having funding for that will really help, as well,” Williams said.
For Young-Huff, the underlying need — among Black CNA providers like herself, but also among Blacks navigating the healthcare system more generally — is very simple.
“The state needs to recognize us — we’re not recognized,” she said.