Thursday, June 19, 2008

More people on the move and Medicaid

Abby Ottenhoff, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s communications director based in Chicago, is resigning. She’s the third high-level employee in the governor’s office to step down within a month.

Deputy Gov. Sheila Nix resigned this month and was replaced by Bob Greenlee, a former chief of staff and deputy director of the governor’s budget office. Springfield-based spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch stepped down to join a St. Louis-based public relations firm and is replaced by Brian Williamsen, a former TV reporter in Springfield and in South Carolina.

Ottenhoff said in an e-mail that she plans to take some time off to travel and visit family and friends before returning to the professional world. She’s spent five years as the governor’s spokeswoman and previously was an aide to House Speaker Michael Madigan.

She’s replaced by Lucio Guerrero, deputy assessor at the Cook County assessor’s office since 2006. He also was a reporter, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times and its affiliate, the Post-Tribune in Indiana. He also worked for newspapers in Delaware and Florida, according to the governor’s office.

Transparency troubles
By Patrick O’Brien and Bethany Jaeger
The state auditor general’s office had a hard time getting timely and accurate fiscal information about a $1.2 billion Medicaid program overseen by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, according to an audit released this week.

Meanwhile, the state is pursuing federal approval to implement a similar but larger Medicaid program that reimburses hospitals caring for the most needy patients.

The audit notes “untimely and inaccurate submission” of records regarding the program, referred to as a hospital assessment because hospitals pay a tax and then get back $3.6 billion from the federal government over three years. Those reimbursements were delayed last year as part of political infighting, but state officials agreed to borrow money to secure federal matching funds and pay hospitals last fall (see more here by scrolling down).

The problem, according to the audit, was a discrepancy over the appropriate way to record the complex transactions of the hospital assessment program. The audit also notes that the department delayed the reporting process by hiring private consultants, which eventually agreed with the auditor’s findings.

Annie Thompson, spokeswoman for the department, said hiring external consultants on such a complicated, $1.2 billion program is routine. Director Barry Maram also wrote in a letter to the auditor general: “Our overall concern is that a misinterpretation could be made that the assessment liability is a strain on state resources, when in fact there was no strain but instead a net gain to the state.” The department agreed with many of the auditor’s other findings.

The department previously has been criticized for “deficient” accounting practices, as noted by previous audits (here and here) and by Comptroller Dan Hynes. Regarding the most recent audit, Hynes said in an e-mail Thursday: “Accuracy and timeliness of fiscal information from state agencies is a critical concern affecting the state’s ability to produce official financial statements that portray the state’s fiscal profile and creditworthiness. That process is potentially jeopardized by the conditions noted by the auditor general.”

As for the future hospital assessment program, which is pending federal approval, the plan’s structure is more important than some bookkeeping concerns, said Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican. “We don’t want to give the federal government excuses to deny the assessment. It is troubling.”

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