'Advocate at heart' begins second year on state health panel

URBANA — During his first year on a state regulatory panel, Ronald Eaker managed to throw Cook County officials into a tizzy.

What might this Urbana guy have in store for Year 2?

Eaker, 63, will end his first year of a two-year appointment on the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board on Aug. 13.

And he still feels just as protective about consumers' interests as he did when he started.

"I'm an advocate at heart for Mr. and Mrs. John Smith," he says.

The nine-member board issues or denies permits — called certificates of need — to hospitals, clinics and other medical providers for their construction projects that meet certain dollar thresholds, acquisitions of major medical equipment, mergers, closures and other substantial changes they want to make in the scope of their facilities and services.

In some previous decisions for East Central Illinois providers, the board has kept several outpatient surgery centers from being developed in Champaign and Coles counties, approved the merger of Carle Foundation Hospital and Carle Clinic and allowed Carle to expand its campus. In the near future, the board will be considering Provena Health's plans to merge with Resurrection Health Care and Carle's plans to buy Hoopeston's community hospital and three medical clinics.

This past May, Eaker stunned Cook County officials by thwarting their plans to close Oak Forest Hospital, a south suburban charity hospital, and convert it to an outpatient clinic to save money. With three board vacancies at the time, and only five of the six voting members present, Eaker cast the only "no" vote on the panel, but five "yes" votes were needed to close the facility.

Eaker said he was contacted afterward by several reporters who wanted to talk to him about his vote, but he declined because board members are advised not to discuss individual cases.

"My voting my conscience and my beliefs and representing consumers led to the history of what happened," he said.

A former United Methodist minister and former nursing home administrator, Eaker manages Park 150 Self-Service Storage in Urbana.

He took his latest job to slow down some, after his third heart attack.

The heart attacks also led him to join Champaign County Health Care Consumers and to become an advocate for patients, he says.

A Carle patient, he had health coverage through Blue Cross and Blue Shield, but was left with crushing medical debt because the former Carle Clinic, now Carle Physician Group, doesn't accept that form of insurance.

"I know what it feels like to be denied services," he said. "I know what it feels like to have medical needs that can't be met. I know what it feels like to have a second job to buy my medicines."

Eaker said he's found his service on the state planning board rewarding, but there have also been some surprises.

One surprise has been the amount of work it involves. Each board meeting includes numerous projects to be acted upon, and and a single certificate of need application can be hundreds of pages. One application, Eaker recalls, was 6,000 pages.

Another thing that has surprised him:

"I thought it might be fairly clear what might help improve access to care for all people," he said.

But how do you measure how much a new facility — for example, a renal dialysis facility — will add to overall costs or increase capacity and comfort for patients, he says.

"I thought it would be much clearer," he said. "The board has to weigh that."

Eaker says he's aware there are those who believe the board shouldn't exist and that medical providers should be able to build whatever they want without state oversight. But he disagrees.

"I feel the board is very important and the work we do is very important," he said.

Why? Because consumers can't shop for medical care, and there has to be some control over the medical community to help control prices, Eaker says.

"It's impossible to shop if you're in an emergency medical situation or even if you're just being referred in for a procedure," he said.

And too many hospital beds and duplicate pieces of expensive medical equipment in the same community drive prices up, because the providers have to justify the cost of owning them, Eaker said.

With medical costs rising above the cost of living, Eaker said, he's not sure how well the certificate of need process is working to help control prices, but he knows it's "the best process we have available to us right now."

Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, recommended Eaker to fill the vacant seat on the planning board and says she sees him working hard to bring a strong consumer presence to the panel.

"I think he has consistently considered issues of access to care, especially for disadvantaged populations, and thought a lot about how the changes would affect groups within given communities, and prioritized those needs," she said.

While Eaker serves on Health Care Consumers' health care access task force, Lennhoff said, he has been very ethical about refraining from discussing any of the state board's business. What she knows is what she's observed from the public process, she said.

"I am really proud of Ron," Lennhoff said. "I think he is really fulfilling his purpose in bringing a consumer presence on that board. I think he has served consumers well."

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