A lawyer for Aurora Health said Thursday it will invest $20 million to open a 27-bed inpatient behavioral health unit at the Southern Suburb Hospital in Hazel Crest.

When completed in late 2023, it will also consolidate inpatient mental health services from Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. Health officials said they were taking other steps to integrate mental health services into primary health care units in the southern and southwestern suburbs.

The company said it will move births and deliveries to South Suburban on Christ from August 1, although prenatal and postnatal services will continue to be available at the Hazel Crest facility.

In a note to staff Thursday announcing the changes, Rashard Johnson, president of South Suburban, said the Advocate Aurora Community Needs Assessment “has made clear the growing need for greater access to mental health services in the southern suburbs.”

Johnson told Daily Southtown that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the need for mental health care, especially in black and brown communities.

“We want to expand access to health care, we want to improve health equity,” he said.

According to Pete Carlson, President of Behavioral Health at Advocate Aurora, Christ’s inpatient behavioral health unit is licensed for 41 beds and staffed for about 24 of them. According to him, doctors and nurses of this department are expected to move to the Southern suburbs.

Advocate Aurora is seeing a steady decline in deliveries in the Southern Suburb, officials said.

Since 2015, the number of babies born at Hazel Crest Hospital has fallen by 40% since 2015, Johnson said, with an average of just over two babies a day being born at the hospital.

Factors contributing to the decline include rising median ages in the areas that South Suburban serves and “women and families making different decisions about having children,” Johnson said.

South Suburban will continue to provide antenatal and outpatient maternity care, have a 24-hour OB/GYN nurse to attend to emergency needs, and plan to bring expectant mothers and family members to Christ on the day of their birth.

Christ Medical Center has 56 obstetric beds and no physical changes will be required to accommodate patients from the South Suburbs, Johnson said.

There are 16 delivery rooms in South Suburban, he said, and the space will be repurposed for medical/surgical purposes.

The existing medical/surgical facilities at the hospital will be converted into a mental health unit.

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Advocate Aurora officials said they expect the project to be approved before the end of this year by the Illinois Health and Services Review Board.

Carlson and Johnson said Advocate Aurora is integrating mental health services into its primary care offices with a pilot program that now includes an Orland Park office with plans to expand it to other Southland clinics. There are currently no inpatient beds dedicated to mental health care in the Southern Suburbs.

It is intended to provide mental health care “to those individuals who may not seek help on their own or follow a doctor’s referral,” Johnson said.

Carlson said that “patients tend to tell their PCP that they have mental health issues,” and we hope the pilot will connect more patients in need of these services with doctors and other Advocate Aurora professionals.

“This expansion of mental health services will enable us to meet the vital needs of the communities we serve for years to come,” Johnson told hospital staff.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many jobs would be lost due to shifting labor and delivery from South Suburban to Christ, but a spokesperson for Advocate Aurora said the company would work to find comparable jobs for affected employees elsewhere in its hospital system in Chicago. and that he expects more jobs to be created as a result of the new mental health unit.

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