Long wait for testing adds to patient's pain

Budget cuts, layoffs delay procedures at Cook County hospitals

By the time Mark Frye visited Cook County Hospital in Oak Forest last fall, the pains in his stomach were weeks old.

The 50-year-old had been without health insurance since he was laid off Oct. 31, 2008. Unable to afford COBRA payments or find a full-time job with benefits, Frye prayed he didn't get sick.When he did, he went to his physician, who wrote a referral to Oak Forest Hospital for additional testing.

Frye, who spent 18 years as a corporate relationship banker, was initially reluctant to enter the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. Then his physician had a frank discussion with him.

"He stressed that I should not allow pride to step in the way of accepting the (county) benefits as my taxes have paid for them my entire life and I am as much entitled to them as anyone in this situation," Frye said.

So he found himself at Oak Forest Hospital on Nov. 18, hoping to find an explanation for the persistent pain and other symptoms.

After a 41/2-hour wait, an emergency room doctor informed him that the Oak Forest facility was not equipped to perform gastrointestinal testing. The doctor gave Frye another referral -- to Stroger Hospital.

Frye said he was told that someone at the county would call him with an appointment time within two weeks. But weeks turned into months. He said he called Stroger Hospital's customer complaint line repeatedly. When he got through, he was told simply to wait.

With his stomach still hurting, Frye e-mailed What's Your Problem? in mid-January.

"It scares the living daylights out of me," he said.

"These tests are absolutely necessary. This is an urgent matter as far as my doctor is concerned, but it's clearly not an urgent matter as far as Cook County is concerned."

Frye, who lives in Oak Forest, was recently hired as a part-time accountant at Restoration Technologies in Aurora. But the job does not come with health benefits, and the former banker said he cannot afford to pay medical costs.

He said he felt guilty asking for county-funded health care, but he has no other choice.

"I'm not a creature of the system," Frye said. "It's the first time I've been exposed to it.

"It's been a real culture shock, I dare say. There are more people like me that probably are getting the short shrift," Frye said.

The Problem Solver called Lucio Guerrero, spokesman for the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. Guerrero said budget cuts have hamstrung the system, leading to long delays for some types of care.

In 2007, the county eliminated more than 1,000 positions, including 260 doctors and residents and 230 nurses, Guerrero said.

The layoffs prolonged the wait time for many procedures, including endoscopies and colonoscopies. Guerrero said Cook County does about 8,600 of the procedures a year but has limited resources. Wait times stretch for months in non-emergency situations.

"It could go a year or so if it's a non-urgent referral," Guerrero said. "It's definitely something that's a concern here."

He said the county is considering adding Saturday sessions for colonoscopies and endoscopies to alleviate some of the backlog. It also is looking at restructuring some of its staff and spacing to enable more testing.

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