Leading doctor discusses Chicago’s death gap

“September 11 killed less people than health care inequality kills annually in black Chicago,” said a leader in medical reform Sunday at the First Unitarian Church.

Dr. David A. Ansell, 60, is chief medical officer at Rush University Medical Center and a board member of the Cook County Health and Hospital System. Last year, Ansell released a memoir of his 17-­year career in Chicago public hospitals, COUNTY: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital. Speaking before a group of 30, Ansell discussed how a “death gap” is ravaging Chicago’s black population.

“A white person in Hyde Park will live to 83, but a short walk away in Washington Park, a 21-year death gap causes black people to only live to 64,” he said.

This gap translates into 3,100 preventable deaths a year. While hospitals offer inadequate care, Ansell said funding is not the real issue.

“Six billion dollars have been invested into Chicago hospitals since 1990, but the death gap has gotten worse.”

The real issue, Ansell insists, is that Chicago’s poor black and affluent white populations use different hospitals. To drive home his message, Ansell recounted how a black woman was recently transported away from the affluent University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) to a public clinic while in the midst of a breech delivery.

“The hospital sent this woman away, with a foot literally outside her vagina, because she didn’t have the proper insurance,” said Ansell.

Any improvement to the current system depends on turning universal health care into a human right, Ansell argues.

“Right now the only form of universal care we have is for emergencies. People literally go blind waiting to see an eye doctor in our public health care system. Minor things add up, and life expectancies go down.”

When Ansell asked the crowd what they thought of this system, one person shouted, “It’s murder.”

“I think you’re right,” Ansell answered. “But I’m optimistic. I like to think about MLK, who revealed inequality to the public. People will know this is wrong.”

Ansell said he hoped his talk would raise awareness about the death gap. Nonetheless, he knows earning citizen support will not directly lead to the backing of politicians or hospital directors.

“Even if health care becomes universal, hospitals will still be seeking the most profitable patients. The University of Chicago pretends to help those in need through its Urban Health Initiative (UHI), but it’s a charade,” said Ansell.

The UHI is a program funded by the UCMC that attempts to increase access to health care across the city’s South Side. Ansell claims that the program has been undercut by the removal of general-­care patient slots for specialty-­care slots. Specialized care is more expensive, and therefore more profitable for the hospital.

Ansell also took issue with the UCMC’s decision to deactivate its trauma center.

“It’s another form of inequality. People get shot on the South Side, but are taken up to Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH) for treatment. They’re worried about money.”

The discussion of the trauma center energized the crowd. A chorus of voices chanted, “Support F­‐L-Y.”

Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) is a youth activist group committed to ending violence on the South Side. Their founder, Damian Turner, was shot in August, 2010 a few blocks from the UCMC. He died from his wounds after being driven north to NHM.

Ansell places his hope in people like Turner, an activist willing to commit his life to seeing change through.

“Money controls the hospitals, and I know governments can be bad–my grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. But more people need to speak up about this human right to health–citizens, doctors, and hospitals. These people can start change,” said Ansell.

One audience member took the opportunity to speak up. Mathew Stevens, 35, approached Ansell after his speech. Without taking a breath, Stevens told Ansell about his experience as an uninsured Chicagoan.

“I was badly burned, but when I went to the free clinic, they just gave me a Band‐Aid and told me it wasn’t a big deal. I’m still in pain,” Stevens said.

After listening intently, Ansell told Stevens to “stay engaged in the reform movement.”

Dismissing the potential of Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to fix the death gap, Ansell instead told the crowd to focus on Vermont, where universal health care legislation is under consideration.