February 24, 2009

Students press Zimmer on budget cuts, revised E.R. policy at forum

[img id="77321" align="alignleft"] President Robert Zimmer came under fire at an open forum Monday from students angry over new rules for assessing and triaging patients in the University of Chicago Medical Center’s (UCMC) emergency room under the Urban Health Initiative.

Earlier this month, the Medical Center announced it would turn away patients not in need of critical care, instead referring them to one of the UCMC’s less expensive community health centers, located in neighborhoods throughout the South Side. Several critics have claimed the policy disproportionally affects lower-class residents who don’t have primary care physicians.

Students at the meeting expressed concern based on recent articles about the Medical Center in the Chicago Tribune. The paper recently reported that the American College of Emergency Physicians condemned the Urban Health Initiative as “dangerously close to patient dumping.”

Zimmer explained the Urban Health Initiative as a way to continue providing quality medical care and training, while also devoting resources to biomedical research.

“Beginning with Michelle Obama and now with [Dean for Community-based Research] Eric Whittaker, [the Medical Center is trying] to develop a system of health care on the South Side of Chicago, taking account of all the providers, attempting to create a different kind of structure,” Zimmer said, “to get patients into a position where they have a primary-care physician.”

Zimmer questioned the value of the Tribune as a source of accurate information about the Medical Center’s program. He encouraged students to go to the Urban Health Initiative’s website.

“The Tribune story was obviously a negative story. If you take it at face value, you’re going to come to one conclusion,” he said. “I would hope that as U of C students, you would try to do more to avoid a superficial [understanding].”

According to its website, the Urban Health Initiative “helps emergency-room patients with non-urgent conditions find a medical home that offers appropriate primary-care and establish an ongoing relationship with a community health center or physician.”

Students also grilled the president about the recent layoff of 450 Medical Center employees. “The question about layoffs in the hospital is tricky,” Zimmer said. “The hospital is facing budget shortfalls. [It had] to figure out what the most important thing was.... There’s no unique right decision. Their responsibility is to talk to their community and figure out what’s best. It’s regrettable that we’re in a situation where we have to make these decisions.”

Not everyone left the discussion satisfied with Zimmer’s responses. “There needs to be a stronger commitment to providing health care,” second-year Sophia Kortchmar said. “The way the hospital is perceived is really important.”

Kortchmar also said that Zimmer’s responses reinforced many of her concerns.

“I don’t have the facts. Whether or not it’s an accurate representation, it certainly is indicative of what people are feeling about the direction the hospital is going in. It plays into fears about where health care is going,” she said.

President Zimmer expected students would have concerns about the Medical Center. “I was not surprised,” he said in an interview with the Maroon. “The UCMC is an important part of the University.”