File Photo – Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan | Photo: Google Street View

The Lake County coroner is calling for action amid an exodus of doctors leaving Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan, affecting patient care, after the hospital was recently purchased.

Lake County Coroner Jennifer Banek recently sent a letter outlining her concerns with Vista Medical Center East to Vista Health System Board Trustee George Bridges.

Vista Health System, previously owned by Quorum Health Corporation, was purchased by American Healthcare Systems, which took over the company in July. It is the third change in ownership in the last five years.

“As the Lake County Coroner, I have dedicated much of my time to investigating preventable deaths. As you likely already appreciate, healthcare access is a social determinant of health that can significantly impact a community’s mortality rate,” Banek said.

“A precursor to preventable death may often commence with a barrier in access to quality healthcare. Indeed, when we parse through much of our data at the coroner’s office, Waukegan is particularly vulnerable,” Banek added.

In addition to being the county’s coroner, Banek is a certified registered nurse anesthetist who administers anesthesia to patients of Vista Medical Center East.

“The Waukegan community desperately needs hospital services; however, I have some grave concerns regarding VMCE’s financial stability, thus compromising its ability to serve the Waukegan community and placing its people at further risk,” Banek said.

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The coroner said doctors are leaving the hospital because they have either not been paid in months or the checks they received were returned for insufficient funds.

A staffing agency is no longer sending hospital staff to the hospital because of late payments.

“Many persons who have noted these circumstances have tried to ameliorate the circumstances with hospital administration, to no avail,” Banek said.

Banek said a¬†patient’s hip surgery was delayed because the prosthesis representative would not come into the hospital to assist with the surgery until they had been compensated.

A contractor who performed HVAC work at Vista Ambulatory Care Center in Lake Villa was not paid on time, Banek said.

In November 2022, the hospital’s anesthesia team placed 45 labor epidurals, a figure that dropped to 15 in November 2023.

Waukegan City Clerk Janet Kilkelly also noted a decrease in births in Waukegan during a December intergovernmental meeting.

Staff reported that the obstetricians are sending their patients to other hospitals because the obstetricians have not been paid, Banek said.

Board Trustee Rick Harris told Vista Health System CEO Bianca Defilippi in an email that he was “extremely disturbed” after reading Banek’s letter.

He said he received similar complaints from residents, employees, contractors and politicians regarding Vista.

“At a time where it is difficult to attract and retain qualified medical talent, I find it reprehensible that AHS has been so blatantly negligent and professionally irresponsible by not paying nor honestly communicating with our contracting partners who are crucial to our business and more importantly, to preserving the lives of our patients,” Harris said.

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Banek also said in her letter that basic equipment, such as hospital beds, are often in disrepair with brakes being broken.

Gastroenterologists continue to plead for better scopes to perform routine colonoscopies, she added.

“While I want to believe that the hospital is establishing a solid healthcare foundation and framework that community has long deserved, I am certain you can appreciate how the above issues might give me pause to think otherwise. It is my hope that we can be proactive in our approach to addressing the future healthcare needs of Waukegan,” Banek said.

The coroner told Lake and McHenry County Scanner she believes approximately half of the doctors at Vista Medical Center East have left the hospital since it was acquired in July.

Dr. Jonathan Citow, who is part of The American Center for Spine and Neurosurgery in Libertyville and the chief of neurosurgery at Advocate Condell Medical Center, said his group is contracted with Vista Medical Center East.

He said the hospital will no longer have neurosurgery coverage soon because his group and almost all other specialists have not been paid for their work in many months.

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The change will impact patients and lead to worse outcomes because patients with spine and head injuries will need to be transferred from the hospital, Citow said.

Citow said the intensive care unit physicians and most of the general surgery doctors have left the hospital.

Other doctors in the urology, cardiology and ENT specialties have also left. Several gastroenterology doctors have also left.

Citow said American Healthcare Systems has “run this place into the ground so fast.”

He believes there should be government intervention to turn Vista into a county-owned hospital. He also said a major issue with the new company that purchased the hospital is communication.

Citow attempted to report a serious patient safety issue to the company but he says the hospital’s CEO did not respond to his dozens of phone calls and voice messages.

“The biggest issue is about patients. They are 100% being endangered and the quality of care is plummeting,” Citow told Lake and McHenry County Scanner in an interview.

An emergency meeting between the board of trustees and Vista executives is scheduled for Friday.

A request for comment from American Healthcare Systems on the situation went unanswered.