IHA President A.J. Wilhelmi on what motivates him to advocate for Illinois hospitals

A nine-month budget impasse has created an extremely challenging operating environment for Illinois hospitals, and healthcare leaders are feeling an enormous amount of pressure to keep their facilities afloat in such a difficult market.

Tasked with addressing the financial problems and other issues plaguing healthcare organizations in the state, the Illinois Health and Hospital Association's 2016 advocacy agenda is full.

The IHA, formed through the merger of the Illinois Hospital Association and Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council, officially launched Jan. 1. Representing more than 200 hospitals and health systems, the integrated organization is working hard to improve healthcare in Illinois.

IHA President and CEO A.J. Wilhelmi is prepared to take on the tough issues facing Illinois hospitals. He began leading the IHA Jan. 1, but he isn't new to the healthcare industry. Prior to his current role, Mr. Wilhelmi served as the Illinois Hospital Association's chief government relations officer from 2012 to 2015. He also previously served in the Illinois Senate, representing the 43rd Senate District. During his tenure in the state Senate, Mr. WilhWilhelmielmi was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and vice chairman of the Senate Agriculture & Conservation Committee.

Becker's Hospital Review recently caught up with Mr. Wilhelmi to get his insight on a number of issues, including the challenges facing Illinois hospitals.

The state budget impasse is a huge concern for Illinois hospitals
Regarding the budget impasse, Mr. Wilhelmi says it's putting hospitals in a difficult position. "The decisions Illinois hospitals may be forced to make — service reductions, job reductions, putting projects on hold — those are all very challenging decisions to make for hospital and health system leaders," he says.

The IHA is focused on working with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and lawmakers to get fiscal year 2016 and 2017 budgets in place. "At the end of the day, for our hospitals to continue to provide care to their patients and communities, there has to be sustainable, predictable and timely payment," says Mr. Wilhelmi.

In Illinois, 41 percent of hospitals are operating in the red or at a very slim margin. "The challenges in the environment are very real," Mr. Wilhelmi says.

Safety-net hospitals and facilities that serve vulnerable communities have been significantly impacted by the budget impasse. However, those hospitals are working diligently to continue to provide care.

In addition to financial constraints presented by the standstill on the budget, Illinois hospitals are also faced with issues affecting hospitals nationwide, such as downward pressure from commercial payers and Medicare cuts.

Despite the challenges, hospital leaders are dedicated to providing healthcare access to all Illinoisans. Mr. Wilhelmi says he's inspired by their commitment to remain pillars of healthcare in their communities.

Hospital tax exemptions under fire in Illinois
The potential loss of tax exemptions is another pressing issue Illinois hospitals are faced with.

In January, an Illinois appellate court ruled that part of a law that allows nonprofit hospitals to avoid paying millions of dollars in property taxes is unconstitutional.

The law at the center of the case was passed in 2012, and simply required a nonprofit hospital's charitable services to exceed its property tax liability to qualify for tax exemptions.

The appeals court held that the law is unconstitutional because the Illinois constitution only allows lawmakers to exempt property "used exclusively" for "charitable purposes."

The case is now headed to the Illinois Supreme Court, and Mr. Wilhelmi says the IHA is watching the issue very closely. The IHA will be submitting an amicus brief defending the constitutionality of the statute.

Focus on quality improvement
While 2016 appears to be a grim time for hospitals in Illinois, organizations in the state are still working to make positive changes in healthcare.

As part of CMS' national Partnership for Patients campaign, the Illinois Hospital Association's Institute for Innovations in Care and Quality partnered with the American Hospital Association/Health Research and Education Trust on the Hospital Engagement Network — a project focused on reducing patient harm and readmissions.

From January 2012 through March 2015, the 100 Illinois hospitals that participated in HEN prevented 15,887 patient harms with an associated cost savings of $161.8 million.

Last September, the Illinois Hospital Association teamed up with the Michigan Health & Hospital Association to launch a joint quality improvement program — HEN 2.0. More than 200 hospitals in the two states have committed to participate in HEN 2.0.

Mr. Wilhelmi is inspired by the work the hospitals have done through the program. "This motivates me to continue to support our hospitals," he says.




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