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

Government officials are set to hold a press conference Monday after the state revoked the trauma center designation for Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan, which they say could lead to lives lost.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) sent a memorandum, obtained by Lake and McHenry County Scanner, to EMS medical directors, coordinators and agencies on Friday.

The memo said Vista Medical Center East is no longer an Illinois Designated Level 2 Trauma Center in EMS Region 10 effective Friday.

IDPH asked EMS systems affected by the change to immediately update their trauma destination protocols and notify their EMS agencies.

The change means ambulances can no longer transport patients with serious injuries to Vista and will have to instead transport to other hospitals, such as Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital or Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, which are further away.

The change also means patients with serious injuries who walk in to Vista will need to be transferred to other hospitals. Patients with minor injuries can still be treated at Vista.

Illinois State Senator Adriane Johnson (D-Buffalo Grove) said Sunday that the Waukegan community is facing a “detrimental downturn” in trauma-focused care.

“A lack of accessible, reliable, high-quality health care is already the reality for many, and the recent announcement will create even more damage for local residents. Simply put: Without proper intervention, lives will be lost,” Johnson said.

“It is vital that we find the root cause of the issue at Vista Medical Center and create tangible solutions to ensure residents are safe. We also must consider the impact it has on employees who face grave uncertainty from if they have a job to if they’ll be paid,” Johnson said.

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The state senator said she will be working with the IDPH, Vista Medical Center East and other local and state agencies to ensure patients and employees “receive the care and assistance they deserve.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in a letter earlier this week that the IDPH conducted an on-site investigation at Vista on Tuesday.

The investigation included observations, record reviews and interviews.

The state’s investigation, initiated following a complaint, showed the hospital failed to meet the federal requirements for participation as a hospital in the Medicare program.

The letter said Vista Medical Center East failed to ensure appropriate providers are available to provide necessary services for its patients and that the hospital failed to ensure an institutional plan and budget exist.

“This impacted the availability of services and supplies necessary for patient care,” the HHS said.

The agency said Vista is required to take corrective action to address the deficiencies identified by the state’s investigation.

A joint press conference with Lake County Coroner Jennifer Banek and Lake County Health Department Director Mark Pfister will be held Monday afternoon to discuss the situation.

Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor said she was “deeply disturbed and concerned” about the loss of the trauma center designation.

“It is in the interest of all Waukegan families that we have a well-run hospital with a trauma center. I am requesting an immediate meeting with Vista Health System CEO Bianca Defilippi and American Health Systems CEO Michael Sarian,” Taylor said.

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“I also will work with our legislators in Springfield to see how the City of Waukegan can work with IDPH to assist in this manner. Nothing is more important than the health and welfare of our hard-working Waukegan residents,” Taylor added.

In late December, Banek 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 previously administered 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.

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

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“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.

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.

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

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.