Dec. 11, 2008 – Three days into the new fiscal year, the Cook County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved an unprecedented $9.8 million medical malpractice settlement last week, as President Todd Stroger seeks $280 million in bonds to cover day-to-day costs.
Commissioner Peter N. Silvestri (9th) called the settlement, involving the 2005 death of 27-year-old Farrah Dickerson, atypical. He said he expected a 12 percent increase in total settlements for 2009 from last year's $80 million due to the large size of the settlement.
Still, Silvestri said $90 million is just a drop in the bucket considering the county's $3.2 billion annual budget.
"Part of the problem is that the budget is not very transparent," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a government watchdog group specializing in budget analysis in the Chicago area.
Msall said his group does not specifically track the county's legal settlements but said the way the county uses its Working Cash Fund, an internal savings account estimated to exceed $220 million and tapped in part to finance court settlements, is "subject to debate."
The question the public must ask of these settlements, Msall said, is whether "the county is learning from [them]."
Commissioner Earlean Collins (1st) is not sure it is. During last Wednesday's county board meeting, Collins urged commissioners to settle litigation cases more quickly as she reminded them of past lawsuits the board took too long to settle.
"This could have easily been twice as much," Collins said of the Dickerson settlement. Dickerson died at Stroger Hospital after medical personnel allegedly neglected to treat her excessive bleeding during childbirth.
"When we get to a point where we can't win, you have to settle them," Collins said of the lawsuits filed against Cook County. Collins hopes the newly formed Board of Health, approved by the County Board in last March, will continue to emphasize "better accountability of nurses" and doctors.
Collins added that the county should do a better job in tracking the medical malpractice history of its hospitals and doctors.
Ultimately, Collins said, too many of the cases settled by the county could have been avoided, a trend that is "eating away at our budget."
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez is responsible for evaluating each lawsuit filed against Cook County. They range from medical malpractice to sexual harassment suits. Alvarez then recommends to the litigation subcommittee of the Cook County Board's Finance Committee whether to settle a case or fight it. Cases involving less than $100,000 in damages don't go before the board, but are left to the discretion of Alvarez's office.
Calls to Alvarez's office were not returned but Silvestri, who heads the litigation sub-committee, said, "routinely more cases are settled [than are brought to trial]."
The 2008 Cook County budget slashed funding to the county's three major hospitals including Chicago's John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital, by $78 million, from $617 million in 2007 to $413 million.
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