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Cook County health system can’t find qualified billing staff, official says

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Nevermind near record unemployment, a Cook County health and hospitals system official says they’re having a tough time filling several patient billing jobs, one of several problems that could trigger a financial crisis by the time the fiscal year ends Nov. 30th.

“It looks like we’re going to be $40 to $50 million short,” Michael Ayres, the hospital system’s Chief Financial Officer, said during a Cook County board meeting Wednesday.

Ayres and the health system’s human resources chief Deborah Tate said the Cook County health system’s “perceived instability” and low pay make it difficult to draw qualified candidates.

Ayres didn’t say at the meeting exactly which jobs the county couldn’t fill — or how much the positions paid. Officials could not provide the information later in the day, either.

But Commissioner Bridget Gainer, a North Side Democrat, said she had a hard time believing that in this economy it would be difficult to recruit good candidates.

“If something is consistently a problem, let’s fix it,” said Gainer, who questioned whether hiring should be outsourced.

Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider, a northwest suburban Republican, says the problem could be addressed as part of the overhaul of the President’s Office of Employment Training, a job training program in the south and west suburbs. It could be as simple as lining up training with job openings.

“I hope that’s the direction we’re going in,” Schneider said.

The staffing issue is only part of the health system’s potential budget problem, revenue documents show. The recent consolidation of the billing system — created to speed up the process — hit some bumps in January and February, delaying claims submissions. By the end of the first quarter, patient fee revenues were $14.1 million short of the $63.8 million budgeted.

Officials also said that a delay in Medicaid payments from the state is also contributing to the shortfall.

All of this was news to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

“I had not known until this morning that the health and hospital system was projecting that they would be $35 to $50 million short of that number,” Preckwinkle told reporters after Wednesday’s board meeting.

She plans to meet with hospital officials to discuss the matter more in-depthly.

In crafting her first-ever budget, Preckwinkle earlier this year had to erase a $487 million deficit and asked the health system along with other county government agencies to tighten their belts and cut spending. They did that, passing a balanced budget for 2011 in February.

Asked whether she could find money to help the health system, Preckwinkle said: “I think our focus will be how they intend to meet their total budget numbers given their patient fee shortfalls,” Preckwinkle said.

And if they can’t?

“Well, we’re not there yet. They’ve projected this shortfall and we’re going to work with them,” she said. “We’ve got half the fiscal year left so we’ve got time to make corrections and adjustments. We’ll talk to them about what corrective actions they intend to take to make their budget numbers.”

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