West Suburban Hospital Medical Center. (File)

The prospective new owners of West Suburban Medical Center, Austin at Erie in Oak Park, said they would be listening to the staff and the community as they chart the path forward.

And that is what they did April 7 at a town hall event held at West Sub.

Several long-time West Sub staffers expressed surprise and optimism that the expected new owners of the hospital arrived in person and took questions after opening comments.

On March 10, Pipeline Health, the hospital’s most recent owner, announced that it planned to sell West Suburban and Weiss Memorial Hospital, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, to the recently formed Resilience Healthcare. That company is owned by Manoj Prasad, owner of Xpertease [sic], which specializes in turning around struggling hospitals. A subsequent, March 24 press release clarified that the hospitals will actually be sold to the Princeton, N.J. -based Ramco Healthcare Holdings, a company headed by gas station and hotel owner Reddy Rathnaker Patlola. That company would lease it to Resilience Healthcare. Patlolo and Prasad co-own the company, but Prasad will be responsible for the day-to-day operations.

On April 7, the hospital organized a town hall to give West Suburban employees and community residents a chance to hear from Prasad and Patlolo and ask them questions. During the town hall at the hospital on Austin Boulevard, Prasad said he wanted to restore an internal medicine medical residency program which has lost its accreditation, improve mental healthcare and expand its cancer care. But ultimately, he said, he wanted to listen to what the staff and the community wanted, since they knew what was best for their service area better than him.

As previously reported by Wednesday Journal, Pipeline Health offered to sell its only two Chicago area hospitals for $92 million. According to the Ramco press release, the deal was structured this way to ensure that Resilience wouldn’t take on debt that comes from having a mortgage.

“It provides a foundation for operational continuity, economic success, and increased borrowing power, if necessary,” the press release stated.

The sale is contingent on approval by the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board. According to the board’s site, the hearings on the sale were held on April 8, and it is tentatively scheduled to review the change of ownership applications on June 7.

During the town hall, Prasad said he originally wanted to buy Melrose Park’s Westlake Hospital, which Pipeline acquired in 2018 along with West Suburban and Weiss, only to shut it down almost immediately. Prasad said that he was outbid for Westlake, but that made him interested in Pipeline’s other properties.

He said that he visited West Suburban in the guise of a consultant and he was immediately impressed by how, in spite of the snowy weather outside, the hospital floor was clean.

“To me, that is the first sign that this is a hospital people take pride in,” Prasad said.

When he had a chance to talk to the hospital staff, he was impressed by how many long-time employees West Suburban had.

“I was totally blown away by that loyalty,” Prasad said. “For 32 years, I’ve been fortunate and blessed to be called to hospitals that are struggling, but never have I seen such dedication in a group of individuals — not just people and the staff, but the community that is engaged.”

Patlola said he had already been thinking about expanding his holdings to hospitals when Prasad asked if he wanted to be involved in the purchase.

“I’m very interested in being [involved] in American hospitals, because I think healthcare is a human right,” he said. “I won’t say basic [right], but a human right.”

The fact that, when Patlola arrived in United States from India, he landed at O’Hare Airport, and Chicago was the first big city he ever saw, didn’t hurt, either.

When asked about changes he wanted to make, Prasad said he wanted to ensure that the hospital provides follow-up care for patients dealing with mental health issues, so that they won’t be trapped in the cycle of going in and out of hospitals. He also wanted to invest in treatment of diabetes, which he knew was important given that African Americans make up a substantial portion of the hospital’s base of patients.

“Diabetes is a pretty big problem with everybody, particularly with the African American population, [it hits them] harder than others,” Prasad said.

But his major priority would be to listen to the hospital community, saying he would invite staff to share ideas and complaints with him, promising that anything they say would be confidential. Prasad said he will make a point of walking around the hospital to talk to staff, and he planned to set up a community advisory council.

“I learn, I absorb and I share,” he said. “Every time you don’t see me rushing somewhere you can stop me [and talk to me].”

When asked whether he understood the needs of majority-Black communities east of Austin Boulevard, he responded that he spent decades working in Detroit, so he was already familiar with issues those communities face.

Liz Figueroa-Serrano, a community advocacy supervisor at Sarah’s Inn, a Forest Park agency that supports people dealing with domestic violence, asked whether he would be willing to let more area community organizations use the hospital for meetings and programs.

“Absolutely, without question,” said Prasad.

Several staff members told Prasad that the meeting left them more hopeful than any of the several previous ownership changes. Ellen Walter, social work manager at West Suburban, said the fact that they held a town hall at all was a good sign.

“I think this is the first time someone came up and said, ‘this is who we are,’ not ‘this is what you’re going to get,’” she said.

Patricia Jones-Andrews, who has been a nurse for 34 years, said she appreciated Prasad’s willingness to engage with employees.

“I was impressed with the opening comments,” she added. I’ve been here for [several ownership changes], I wasn’t impressed with anyone before.”

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...