Setbacks to public safety, higher costs for ambulance rides and anxiety over the future of medical care in Woodstock were key worries from residents during three public forums about cuts at Woodstock’s hospital.

Last week’s meetings were part of the city’s Heal Woodstock’s Healthcare campaign, which aims to replace services being eliminated at Centegra Hospital-Woodstock. The meetings included presentations about the cuts from city and Woodstock Fire/Rescue District officials.

“I understand how important this issue, this question, this concern is for each and every one of us in the community of Woodstock, and frankly, in the region surrounding Woodstock as well,” Mayor Brian Sager said. “… We want to address what it is that we might be able to do about that, so I had hoped the city of Woodstock, by hosting these informational meetings, would be able to engage you all in the discussion … and try to encourage your participation as we move forward.”

Centegra in August suspended most inpatient and surgical services in Woodstock, and it subsequently filed an application with the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board to make those changes permanent. The emergency room at Centegra-Woodstock still is running as a basic ER, although people who need surgery or overnight stays are being transported to other Centegra hospitals via private ambulance.

“Who pays for that transport? Unfortunately, the answer is, you are,” Fire Chief Michael Hill told attendees at a Sept. 22 meeting.

People who need to be transported directly to hospitals in Huntley or McHenry already are causing a huge increase in travel time for WFRD’s ambulances, Hill said. A month’s worth of data shows about 50 percent of the district’s calls being handled by neighboring agencies because local ambulances are on the road, up from 7 percent to 10 percent before the cuts, according to Hill. Patients are responsible for covering the cost of added mileage, which is tacked on to WFRD’s estimated ambulance fee of $800.

State Rep. Steve Reick (R-Woodstock), who attended the Sept. 18 meeting, said he is especially concerned about travel times for rural residents living north and west of Woodstock who face even longer trips to Huntley or McHenry. He cautioned a planned construction project along Route 47 could increase travel times even more.

“There is going to be a major construction project on Route 47 between Woodstock and Huntley that’s going to take how long? Years,” Reick said. “And once that construction starts [on] the main artery between Woodstock and Huntley, those times are going to escalate tremendously.”

Many people who attended the meetings signed a petition or offered to speak at a public hearing on the reduction of services at Centegra-Woodstock. The hearing before the IHFSRB is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 2, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a second session set for 5 to 7 p.m. Both sessions will take place at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 W. Van Buren St.

“I liked living here because of the security of the hospital,” Woodstock’s Phyllis Huff said following the Sept. 18 meeting. “I would hope [the hearing] would make a difference, but I don’t know.”

The IHFSRB regulates where hospitals are located. Sager said state law means Centegra’s plans will almost certainly be approved by the board, but he said participating in the public hearing could help to convince state officials to allow another health care provider to fill the void left by Centegra. He said other health networks had reached out to city officials to express interest in entering the Woodstock market.

“It’s hugely distressing, hugely disappointing,” Sager said Sept. 22. “But we also know we have to decide where to go from here.”

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