Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lawmakers weighing health care concerns

By Jamey Dunn

During down time between the spring legislative session and the fall veto session, Illinois lawmakers are meeting to address looming health care issues.

A working group led by Chicago Democratic Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, who heads the House Human Services Budgeting Committee, is looking for ways to cut Medicaid costs. The budget approved by the committee, which went on to be approved by the legislature, pushes millions in Medicaid costs into Fiscal Year 2013. According to Feigenholtz, the overall Medicaid budget — which is spread out over several state agencies — is slated to lose $765 million in federal stimulus funding in FY 2012. “In FY 13, when we come look at our Medicaid numbers, we’re all going to faint. We’re all going to faint,” she said when her committee was crafting the human services budget this spring.

The working group is considering is the budgets for the Illinois School for the Deaf and the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired, both located in Jacksonville, as potential areas of savings. Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration warned last April that the cuts to the human services budget that the House was pushing could close the schools. That threat met passionate opposition from legislators. Members of Quinn’s administration now say they are looking for ways to capture education dollars to fund some of the schools’ operations, and they also will reevaluate what methods are best for educating the state’s deaf and blind students. “The schools for the deaf and visually impaired in Jacksonville are one option in continuum. … Not the only option, not necessarily the best option for every family, but for many families it is,”Ryan Croke, Quinn’s deputy chief of staff, said at a Chicago hearing.

Department of Human Services Secretary Michelle Saddler said that housing the schools in her department places hiring and procurement restrictions not faced by other schools on the institutions. “The state agencies have quite a lot of process that we go through in procuring goods, commodities services, etc. And that makes it difficult for a school that needs timely procurement for school supplies.” She said the administration is weighing whether the schools should remain under her administration or be moved to another agency, such as the State Board of Education. “The school for the deaf and the school for the visually impaired are hybrid programs. … They are hybrid programs in that they’re located within the Department of Human Services, and yet they are schools. So they are education institutions with wrap-around human services, and they’re residential institutions.” Saddler added that DHS is looking for ways to direct education dollars to the schools. “In an environment of decreasing resources, and particularly decreasing resources for human services, how can we stretch human services dollars to serve all the many people, the 2 million people, that DHS serves every day? How can we stretch those while accessing education dollars that may be available both at the state and federal level?”

The schools charged a task force with determining which agency was best to oversee them, and that task force recommended in 2010 that they stay a part of DHS. The parent and alumni associations favor a plan that would make the institutions into lab schools. The group is looking to two lab schools run by public universities in the state as models. Margaret Vaughn, who lobbies on behalf of the parents of students at the schools, as well as the alumni, said the plan would allow the schools to receive general state aid funding that is doled out per student. She said that in total, the schools would receive about $2 million in education dollars if they were converted to so-called lab schools. “It would be at least a dent. At least it would be something. And $2 million is a lot of money, especially with the financial crisis that everyone is going through now.” However, representatives from the State Board of Education said such a plan would require changes to the law.

Saddler reassured parents and advocates that Quinn is not seeking to shut down the schools. ‘It’s not about closure, it’s about governance and how to access education funding.”

Another group of House members has been working through the summer to prepare for the creation of Illinois’ insurance exchange, which the state must have in place by 2014 under the new federal health care reform law. Insurance exchanges will allow customers to browse several insurance plans to find the one that is right for them. The added competition and new regulations are intended to drive down the cost, and those who cannot afford a plan on their own may be eligible for government subsidies.

The Illinois Department of Insurance is pushing lawmakers to pass legislation needed to create the exchange during their veto session, scheduled for the end of October. The group heard testimony from Wakely Consulting, a firm that specializes in implementation of the new federal reforms. Representatives from the firm told lawmakers that the exchange, which is funded in part by the federal government, would carry a price tag of about $92 million to get up and running. Most of the money would go toward technology costs.

Illinois Department of Insurance reports released this week project that the exchange will cut the number of uninsured residents by almost half. The report predicts that the percentage of uninsured Illinoisans will go from 12 percent in 2011 to 7 percent in 2012. The department estimates that 1.4 million Illinoisans will purchase insurance plans through the exchange. Phil Lackman, Illinois vice president of government relations for the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, said once the exchange is up and running, it may be similar to travel sites such as Travelocity, where customers can, for example, search ticket prices from multiple airlines to find the best deal or the option that suits their needs. But Lackman warns that many people would still need the professional advice of an insurance agent certified by the state. “Health insurance is not an airline ticket; it is complicated, expensive, personal, critical to one’s health and financial security.”

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