Lake County Coroner Jennifer Banek speaks Monday at the Lake County Health Department during a press conference about the current situation involving Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan. | Photo: Woo-Sung Shim / Lake and McHenry County Scanner

Lake County officials said “lives are at stake” and are demanding action from Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan after the hospital had its trauma center designation revoked.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) said in a memorandum last week that Vista Medical Center East was no longer an Illinois Designated Level 2 Trauma Center in EMS Region 10 effective Friday.

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.

A joint press conference with Lake County Coroner Jennifer Banek, Lake County Health Department Director Mark Pfister, Lake County Board Chair Sandy Hart and Vista Health System Trustee Rick Harris was held Monday afternoon.

First responders and other government officials, like Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart and Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor, also attended the press conference.

A joint press conference with Vista Health System Trustee Rick Harris (left), Lake County Health Department Director Mark Pfister (middle left), Lake County Coroner Jennifer Banek (middle right) and Lake County Board Chair Sandy Hart (right) was held Monday afternoon about the current situation involving Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan. | Photo: Woo-Sung Shim / Lake and McHenry County Scanner

“Access to safe, quality healthcare is a human right that should be available to everyone,” Banek said, adding that in recent months she became “increasingly concerned” about the exodus of clinicians leaving Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan.

Banek also noted there was a shortage of supplies necessary for patient care and reports of the hospital not fulfilling its financial obligations to contracted staff and vendors.

The coroner sent a letter to the Vista board chair, board members and Vista CEO Bianca Defilippi calling for an emergency meeting in late December.

The emergency meeting was not held until January 23, Banek said.

“American Healthcare Systems is responsible for hospital operations and must immediately take action to protect the community and correct these deficiencies. Lives are at stake,” Banek said.

Banek said heart attack and stroke patients – among others – may not survive a drive to other hospitals in Lake County. “The burden is on American Healthcare Systems to correct these deficiencies.”

The coroner, a certified registered nurse anesthetist who previously administered anesthesia to patients at Vista as a contractor, said the issue has been worsening and did not happen overnight.

“As clinicians, we communicate to patients the importance of seeking care and, in many instances, positive outcomes are time-dependent, relying on the ability to seek medical assistance quickly. Now, because of AHS’s failure to meet these requirements, patients will need to be transported to other hospital facilities located further away,” Banek said.

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Lake County Health Department Director Mark Pfister speaks Monday at the Lake County Health Department during a press conference about the current situation involving Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan. | Photo: Woo-Sung Shim / Lake and McHenry County Scanner

Pfister, who spoke after the coroner, said it is “with utmost importance” that the issues that have come forward are being addressed by Vista’s owner, American Healthcare Systems.

The health department director said the hospital will have to submit a corrective action plan to IDPH following its trauma center designation loss.

Officials were unable to elaborate on what the corrective action plan would entail.

“We already have enough health inequities in this area. We don’t need more,” Pfister said, adding that hospitals are already seeing an uptick in patients from northeastern Lake County.

Pfister said that when American Healthcare Systems bought Vista last year, they made promises to increase the number of services but have instead decreased the number of services.

Hart spoke after Pfister and said patient care will not only be delayed due to longer drives to other hospitals, but also those other hospitals are likely to be receiving a higher than normal number of patients which could cause further delays.

Lake County Board Chair Sandy Hart speaks Monday at the Lake County Health Department during a press conference about the current situation involving Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan. | Photo: Woo-Sung Shim / Lake and McHenry County Scanner

Hart shot down the idea that Lake County could build a county-owned hospital if needed. “Certainly not in today’s budget.”

Taylor briefly spoke during the press conference and said she looks forward to hearing from Vista’s owner about what went wrong.

“This is a private institution, so we can’t just walk in and start trampling over everybody. We want to learn the process. I want this hospital to succeed because when it succeeds, our residents succeed, and they benefit from the services,” the Waukegan mayor said.

“I’m looking for solutions, not pointing fingers,” Taylor said, adding that she hopes the hospital can become not only a Level 2 trauma center again but also eventually a Level 1 trauma center.

The mayor said in a statement Sunday she was “deeply disturbed and concerned” about the loss of the trauma center designation.

Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor speaks Monday at the Lake County Health Department during a press conference about the current situation involving Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan. | Photo: Woo-Sung Shim / Lake and McHenry County Scanner

“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.

“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.

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Vista Health System Trustee Rick Harris said he criticized Vista executives for taking retaliatory action against Banek after she sounded the alarm about issues at the hospital.

A Lake and McHenry County Scanner reporter asked Banek if she was still working at Vista as an anesthesiologist contractor, to which she answered, “As of January 18th, I have not cared for patients at Vista, and that is all I can say at this time.”

Vista Health System Trustee Rick Harris speaks Monday at the Lake County Health Department during a press conference about the current situation involving Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan. | Photo: Woo-Sung Shim / Lake and McHenry County Scanner

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.

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 last 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.

Jake Kaplan, the district director for U.S. Congressman Brad Schneider, speaks Monday at the Lake County Health Department during a press conference about the current situation involving Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan. | Photo: Woo-Sung Shim / Lake and McHenry County Scanner

U.S. Congressman Brad Schneider said the people of Waukegan and surrounding communities “deserve access to the best health care services available.”

“Recent developments at Vista Medical Center East have raised serious concerns and left me deeply disappointed that Waukegan’s top health care provider is falling far short in that mission,” Schneider said.

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“Waukegan and our surrounding communities deserve better. I will work with community leaders and stakeholders to ensure Vista Medical Center East and its ownership are held accountable and that corrective measures are taken immediately,” Schneider 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.

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.

“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.

Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan had its trauma center designation revoked on Friday following an investigation by state health officials. | Photo: Woo-Sung Shim / Lake and McHenry County Scanner

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.