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Despite Order From State Board, Mercy Hospital & Medical Center Says It's Still Planning To Close

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Doctors and nurses at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center has spent the last 10 months deep in the trenches of the coronavirus pandemic, but on Wednesday night, they were planning possibly to lose their jobs after the New Year.

Mercy is in the Bronzeville neighborhood, and doctors and nurses there serve a population that's been especially hard hit by COVID-19. The closest hospital is three miles away.

And as CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey reported Mercy is known as a "safety net" hospital, meaning it cares for patients regardless of their ability to pay.

But despite a vote last week that Mercy could not close, staff members said plans to do so are still in the works.

Dr. John Cudecki has been seeing patients at Mercy for nearly three decades.

And for several months now, he has been fighting to keep Chicago's oldest hospital open.

"There's too many people that rely on the hospital. There's a pandemic," Cudecki said. "It's not a good time to close."

Last week, Cudecki said they saw a glimmer of hope when the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board unanimously rejected the plan to close.

But that vote was followed but an email to Mercy staff saying that despite the decision, they "remain committed" to their plan to close the doors.

Dr. Cudecki said morale is low, particularly since the staff remain out on the front line dealing with patients who have COVID-19.

"Absolutely, COVID patients just keep pouring in," he said.

Last month, Mercy even lost a veteran nurse to COVID-19. Christine Gratzke worked her entire 38-year career at Mercy.

"Her being a nurse was everything. She loved it," Cudecki said. "She wanted to retire and volunteer."

On Monday night, Mercy Hospital supporters braved the cold to show their support.

"It's the activists that are doing this work to keep the hospital open," said state Rep. Lamont Robinson Jr. (D-Chicago).

Robinson has been following this issue closely.

"They are under pressure in the midst of this pandemic. They have livelihoods, and we understand that," he said.

Robinson said he and the office of Gov. JB Pritzker are working on a solution.

"We do have a buyer," Robinson said. "We're in conversations with that buyer right now and we're hopeful that we can get this buyer the support they need to acquire the hospital and continue the health care that we need on the South Side of Chicago."

Mercy released the following statement:

"The doctors and nurses at Mercy have been heroic in caring for patients in our community in the pandemic. Our health care system in Chicago is challenged more today by a staffing shortage than a physical shortage of beds, which is one reason we're working with other health care providers in the state to transfer staff to surrounding facilities, for the benefit of patients and staff alike."

This summer, Mercy announced it would close sometime between Feb. 1 and May 31, 2021. Mercy said it looks forward to going before that state board again early next year.

As to the question of a buyer, a Mercy spokesperson said there are no buyers who have presented themselves as having enough funding to meet the operational and capital needs in the hospital within the timeframe that has been laid out, or the ability to run Mercy as a full-service hospital.

The spokesperson said Mercy owner Trinity Health conducted a national search and approached 20 potential buyers with the hope that one of them could continue operating Mercy as a full-service hospital, but there was no interest and the plan did not work out.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board said despite its decision to block Mercy from closing, there is a possibility that it might have to suspend services anyway.

"The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board's decision to issue an Intent to Deny for Project #20-039 to close Mercy Hospital does not necessarily 'force' the hospital to stay open because the hospital has defined standards (staffing/services/accessibility), that must be met to remain open. While Mercy Hospital is expected to remain open until they return to the Board in the future, any deficiencies in the aforementioned standards may result in the hospital's inability to effectively serve the community, and compel it to suspend services. As of this writing, The Board has received no notification of when Mercy Hospital administration expects to appear again before the Board, or any notification of its closure or suspension of services at this time."

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