Thursday, February 14, 2013

Senate approves fee increase for doctors

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois doctors would pay more for their licenses under legislation passed in the state Senate today. Supporters of the increase say the entity responsible for licensing and disciplining doctors in the state is dangerously underfunded.

Under Senate Bill 622, the license fees paid by doctors would increase from $300 every three years to $700 every three years. The last time the fee was increased was in 1987. According to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, the fund has been operating with a structural deficit in recent years. The department has cut staff responsible for administering licenses from 26 employees down to eight. “This measure will provide the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation medical disciplinary unit the necessary funding that it needs to be able to provide the consumers of the state of Illinois the protection to help maintain the integrity of the medical profession and also to allow the agency to process licensing as fast as we can.” James Tierney of the Illinois State Medical Society said that doctors are open to a fee increase to $500 every three years. But because part of the of the fund depletion can be traced to millions in fund sweeps under previous budgets, he said the money that was swept should be put back, and doctors should not have to pay for it. “The medical profession stands ready to pay a fee that is sufficient to fund the licensure and discipline process,” he said. “In our view, it is the sweeps that have caused the current depletion in the fund that demands ... immediate attention.”  For more on the issue and a broader look at fund sweeps, see Illinois Issues April 2012.

SB 622 calls for a $6 million transfer from the Local Government Tax Fund to the Illinois State Medical Disciplinary Fund, which is running low. Starting in 2014, the money would be paid back out of the licensing fund. When all the money is replaced in 2018, the fee would go down to $500 every three years. Senate President John Cullerton said that the transfer from the local government fund is not expected to cause a delay in revenue for municipalities.

“There’s a real crisis in the state of Illinois,” said A.J. Wilhelmi, senior vice president of government affairs with the Illinois Hospital Association. He said that medical students across the country must decide by Wednesday where they will go to complete their residency training. He said some are holding off on  choosing Illinois because they are worried about the state’s ability to license them.

Cullerton said he understands why the Medical Society is frustrated over the fund sweeps, but he said that their fund was not the only one hit under past budgets. “So we’re talking about ... a $200 difference for a three-year period, which is a relatively small amount of money each year, less than $70. That’s what we’re fighting over. It’s the principle. I get it.” But he said something must be done to ensure that the IDFPR can license doctors and take disciplinary action when there is wrongdoing. He called the bill “a reasonable compromise.”

The House is considering House Bill 193, which would increase fees to $750 for three years. A House committee approved the plan last week, but Cullerton said the issue cannot wait. “I have no idea what’s going to happen over in the House, but in the meantime, we can’t just sit by here in the Senate and not do anything.”

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, sponsor of HB 193, said she is willing to negotiate, but she is concerned that the increases in Cullerton’s bill may not be enough to ensure that the IDFPR can properly license and monitor doctors. “I think it’s going to leave the department without the ability to do the job we have asked it to do.”

The Senate today also quietly approved HB 156, which allows Gov. Pat Quinn to present his budget address on March 6 instead of February 20, when the Senate will not be in session. The legislation passed with no floor debate and only two votes in opposition. The House passed the bill last week, and Quinn is expected to sign it.

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