Rarely in 40-plus years of publishing Gazette Chicago have we seen government ineptitude and arrogance to the extent demonstrated by Cook County Health (CCH) in its relationship with the Hektoen Institute and Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center.
Since opening in 1998, the CORE Center in the Illinois Medical District has served as a beacon of hope and healing for thousands of Chicagoans dealing with HIV/AIDS, those seeking testing and counseling for these and other infectious diseases, and patients seeking other medical services including family and internal medicine, pediatrics, and female care.
CORE Center patients are diverse racially, culturally, economically, and in terms of gender. The center’s medical and support staff are caring, competent, and empathetic. The CORE Center also has served as one of the nation’s leading research sites for HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases under the auspices of CCH grants managed by Hektoen Institute.
Yet in April 2022, CCH informed CORE Center researchers that they must suspend new HIV/AIDS clinical trials pending an investigation. CCH gave no explanation why it was doing so. Nor did it give an explanation when Gazette Chicago attempted to follow up in August of 2023, when we learned that leading research experts were leaving the CORE Center because of the suspension.
Now, as our lead story reveals in a Gazette Chicago exclusive, CCH has decided to sever ties with the Hektoen Institute, a non-profit with a decades-long, stellar reputation. CCH finally, after nearly two years of our covering this story, provided a statement to us, but their response still lacked substance regarding their thinking. And it dripped with an arrogance that CCH didn’t have to offer much to the community.
Because the statement said so little, the community still has questions for CCH:
Why did CCH decide to “investigate” research at the CORE Center? What prompted that investigation?
Did CCH actually investigate? If so, what were the findings? CCH is a public entity, so why is it hiding the results, if there were any?
Why did it take nearly two years to make a decision?
Why was that decision the drastic one of cutting ties with the well respected Hektoen Institute? If CCH found any irregularities, why not state the problems (if indeed any existed) and find a way to fix them?
In a time when the LGBTQ community faces ramped up harassment by politicians and haters, why pick now to cut off research that benefits this beleaguered community?
Why did CCH spend most of the two years not talking to the media about all this, and when it finally issued a statement to Gazette Chicago, use language that said almost nothing that could shed light on the situation?
As Jim Pickett, a senior advisor with the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition said, CCH “never had any actual reason for investigating. What they have done is…severed an incredibly important relationship in the community that will have a real impact”—a negative one.
Pickett is correct. Not just the LGBTQ community, but others in the community dealing with the challenges of HIV/AIDS will suffer, which is bad enough. Additionally, the CORE Center, in partnership with Hektoen Institute has provided research and treatment in many areas concerning a variety of diseases other than HIV/AIDS, which affects not only the local community but the world, as any medical research breakthroughs here can affect healthcare protocols globally.
Two years of doubt about the future have resulted in researchers leaving the CORE Center, and who can blame them? Some have gone to the University of Illinois Chicago, so at least they have stayed in the community. But CORE Center’s research function has not been transferred to UIC in total; instead it has been diluted and dispersed. This outcome is not good for the community or for medical research in general. And it treats the dedicated CORE research staff who have remained with little respect or appreciation.
In an editorial last August, we called on the Cook County Board to get involved, and we renew that call. We also call on a higher authority, the State of Illinois, through local state senators and state representatives, Governor JB Pritzker, and Attorney General Kwame Raoul, to look into CCH’s actions and find out why CCH decided to cripple HIV/AIDS research and care in Cook County.
Clearly, CCH does not want to talk about this situation, but CCH is not the highest authority in the State. The constituents of the Office of the Governor, the Office of the Attorney General, the Illinois General Assembly, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and the Cook County Board deserve answers, and we call on these authorities to find those answers and reveal them to the public, which CCH inexplicably is failing in doing.
One nagging question remains: How much do Preckwinkle and County Board members know and when did they know it? If they are part of this two-year failure in leadership, management, and communication, then they, too, should be ashamed and step forward with an immediate explanation.