Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New laws will take effect in 2014

IDOT Map of highways where the new speed limit will apply.
By Jamey Dunn

With the new year come new laws in Illinois. Two important changes for drivers will begin on January 1, and several of the state’s new laws will affect young people.

Speed limit increase
Senate Bill 2356, Public Act 98-0511 The speed limit on some Illinois interstate highways will increase from 65 miles per hour to 70 miles per hour. The new law allows for highways in some more densely populated areas to be exempted from the increase. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, the new speed limit will apply to about 87 percent of interstate highways and about 28 percent of the Illinois Tollway.

With the new law comes the replacement of an estimated 900 speed limit signs at a projected cost of $200,000. New signs for the Illinois Tollway will cost an estimated $18,000. The department plans to start the task on January 1 and complete it by the middle of the month. IDOT says drivers must continue to obey posted speed limits until the transition is complete.

Cell phone ban 
House Bill 1247, PA 98-0506 Starting on January 1, chatting on a hand-held cell phone while driving will be illegal in the state. Texting while driving is already illegal, and the new law means that drivers are not be allowed to press more than one button to dial a phone number must either use a Bluetooth device or put the phone on speaker to talk on a cell phone while driving. Those who are caught chatting on their phones behind the wheel will face a fine of at least $75. Several municipalities in the state already have bans on using hand-held phones while driving. A 2012 survey from the Chicago Tribune of 270 municipalities in the Chicago area found that more than a quarter had restrictions on cell phone use behind the wheel.

Tanning ban 
HB 188, PA 98-0349 Kids younger than 18 will not be able to tan at commercial tanning salons, even if they have parental permission. The law does not apply to privately owned tanning beds, and teenagers will still be able to get spray-on tans, which do not require exposure to ultraviolet lights. Chicago and Springfield already had tanning bans for minors in place.

Electronic cigarettes 
SB 1756, PA 98-0350 The sale of electronic cigarettes to minors is banned in the state. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Illinois joins at least 26 other states in making the sale of e-cigarettes to minors illegal.

Sexual education 
HB 2675, PA 98-0441 Schools that offer sexual education will have to provide students with comprehensive and scientifically accurate information, including information on contraceptives. Schools will have discretion to decide which curriculum meets those requirements, and parents could opt to keep children out of sex education if they don’t approve of the subject matter covered.

Voting rights
HB 226, PA 98-0051 Beginning this year, 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 by the time of the general election. For example, 17-year-olds can vote in the March 18 primary if they will turn 18 by the November 4 general election.

Juvenile justice 
HB 2404, PA 98-0061 Some 17-year-olds charged with felonies will remain in the juvenile justice system. In 2010, 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors were moved to from the adult system to the juvenile system. Under the new law, all 17-year-old offenders except those who commit felonies that are automatically transferred to adult court will fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile system

Puppy lemon law 
SB 1639, PA 98-0509 Consumers who purchase cats or dogs at pet stores will now have some protections under law if their pets get sick or die shortly after purchase. Stores will be required to reimburse customers if a dog or cat dies within 21 days of sale. They will also be required to cover veterinary costs of an animal is found to have a congenital disease. Sellers will be required to report outbreaks of illness among their animals to the state.

Drone regulation
SB 1587, PA 98-0569 Law enforcement agents will have to get warrants to use unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, for gathering evidence. The law has exceptions for emergency situations and also allows for police to use drones to aid in searches for missing persons. The Illinois State Police has confirmed that it has purchased a drone, Champaign County reportedly has one, and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has said he is considering using drones, as well.

Cigarette butts 
HB 3243, PA 98-0483 Some Illinois residents will likely pledge to quit smoking cigarettes as a New Year’s resolution. Those who don’t may want to resolve not to flick their cigarette butts on the ground, or they could face a hefty fine. Cigarette butts have been added to the litter control act, and those who toss them on the ground could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of no less than $50 and up to $1,500.

Medical Marijuana 
HB 1, PA 98-0122 The law establishing the state’s medical marijuana pilot program goes into effect on January 1. But the agencies in charge of licensing medical marijuana dispensaries, patients and growers will not begin accepting applications until well into 2014.

Growers would be licensed by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and only 22 permits will be issued — one for every state police district. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation will license 60 dispensary operations. Many of the details of the law still must go through the state rule-making process. A news release from the IDFPR said that the rules would not be completed until the winter of 2014. Licenses will not be issued into the rules are approved.

Once the four-year pilot program is up and running, patients will have to meet several requirements to receive a permit. Patients must be at least 18 years old to apply for a medical marijuana card through the Illinois Department of Public Health and must prove they have one of 33 serious or chronic conditions specifically listed in the bill. They must have an established relationship with a doctor who approves their use of the drug. Successful applicants will be allowed 2.5 ounces of marijuana per a two-week period. Patients, caregivers, owners and employees of growing operations and dispensaries will all be required to pass background checks Owners of growing operations or dispensaries will be banned from making campaign contributions. At the end of the four years called for by the law, legislators could vote to continue to program.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Obamacare deadline extended another day

By Jamey Dunn

While today is the official deadline to sign up for insurance coverage, which would kick in on January 1, under the Affordable Care Act, consumers have been given a little extra time.

President Barack Obama’s administration already delayed the cut off for purchasing insurance through online marketplaces, known as exchanges. The original deadline for coverage that starts with the new year was December 15. But after the federal exchange and many state exchanges experienced chronic technical problems, that deadline was bumped to December 23. However, the feds quietly pushed that deadline back as well. The federal exchange will now allow consumers to purchase policies, with coverage that begins on January 1, by midnight December 24.

The move was made without an official announcement, but the Washington Post broke the news earlier today. “Anticipating high demand and the fact that consumers may be enrolling from multiple time zones, we have taken steps to make sure that those who select a plan through tomorrow will get coverage for January 1,” Julie Bataille communications director for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a written statement after word got out.

Those turning to the Illinois exchange, Getcoveredillinois.gov, to purchase insurance coverage will also get another day to buy plans that kick in on January 1. Mike Claffey, a health care spokesman for Gov. Pat Quinn, said Illinois residents will get the same options offered on the federal site because the state’s jointly run exchange links to the federal exchange. But he said Illinois officials are advising those in need of coverage not to wait until the last minute. “We are urging people not to wait and to go ahead and try to get it done today if you can.” Claffey said that technically, the deadline has been extended for people who have already started the process and created an account on the site. So he said at the very least, those interested in getting coverage by January 1 should start the process today. “If you haven’t started yet, it’s getting pretty late in the game.”

This is just one of many recent tweaks to the law, known as Obamacare. The president faced loud criticism from Republicans and some in his own party after insurance companies began canceling plans that did not meet the basic requirements set out in the law. Obama said on several occasion before the law went into effect that if Americans liked the insurance they had, they could keep it. But Obamacare requires insurance plans to offer a set base level of coverage in 10 “essential health” categories, such as prescription coverage, ambulatory care and preventative care.

Instead of upgrading their more bare-bones offerings, many companies opted to cancel the plans, resulting in millions of consumers receiving letters informing them that their policies would not be renewed. Last month, the Obama administration announced that these companies could renew such policies for one more year in states that would allow it. Illinois officials decided to let providers continue to offer such plans. Those who were covered by insurance providers that opted not to extend their plans could be eligible for a “temporary hardship” exemption, which would allow them the buy the catastrophic plan available through the exchange. That plan offers a low level of coverage for a cheaper price, but was originally only available to consumers under 30. To qualify for the exemption, consumers must be able to prove that their previous coverage was terminated.

They may also be eligible for federal subsides to help them purchase a plan that does meet the coverage requirements under the new law. People who pick a plan by tomorrow at midnight will be scheduled to have their coverage start in January. However, those who miss the cut off can still get insurance through the exchange. Open enrollment will continue through March 31.

Former DCFS director dies

State officials announced today that Richard Calica, former director of the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, died early today.

Calica, 67, resigned from DCFS last month after being diagnosed with cancer. He said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune at the time that doctors had told him he had only months to live.

Calica came into the job at a difficult time for DCFS. The agency was violating a federal consent decree by having too few front line investigators and had awarded millions of dollars to contractors for work that could not be verified. Calica was a social worker for much of his career and served as executive director of the Chicago-based Jane Addams-founded Juvenile Protective Association. He oversaw a rebalancing of staff in an effort to come into compliance with the federal court order. That change added 138 new front line investigators and cut caseloads in half. “It has been the most exciting, rewarding and hopefully productive part of my career,” Calica told the Tribune after he stepped down. 

“It is with great sadness today that we announce the passing of Richard Calica, a true public servant in the state of Illinois. Richard Calica was a dedicated advocate for our most vulnerable children. He always put their safety and well-being first,” Gov. Pat Quinn said in a prepared statement. “I send my condolences to Richard’s family and friends. They are in our thoughts and prayers during this most difficult of times.”

For more on Calica, see this profile from Illinois Issues June 2012.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

State officials offer some tips on signing up for Obamacare

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois public health officials are offering some tips to residents who are trying to sign up for health care coverage through the federal insurance marketplace.

The federal site has reportedly kicked some residents back to the state for Medicaid approval when they are actually not eligible. If  the federal website referred you for Medicaid coverage but you think you are not eligible, state officials recommend that you start over on the state’s website, Getcoveredillinois.gov. There you can find out if you are eligible. If you find that you are not, things get a bit more complicated because you still may have trouble signing up for insurance coverage. One option is trying the reset button on the federal site, which is labeled “remove.” The button is intended to scrap your first application. Then you can start fresh. If that does not work, state officials suggest that you make a new account using a different email address. Anyone struggling to enroll online can also call the state assistance line at (866) 311-1119 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. any day of the week. Assistance lines across the country are experiencing a high volume of calls as the deadline to sign up for coverage that begins in January 1 is just days away. Another option is to enter your ZIP code on the “get help” page and find a so-called navigator in your area who can help you out in person.

December 23 is the deadline to sign up for coverage through either exchange if you want insurance to kick in on January 1. Originally, consumers were also required to pay their first premium by December 31, but the federal government announced today that insurance companies have voluntarily moved that date to January 10. That payment is made directly to the insurance company, not to the exchange.

According to recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 67,936 applications for coverage under “Obamacare” have been submitted in Illinois so far. Those applications represent 124,252 individual people. The bulk of those individuals, almost 74,0000, are eligible for Medicaid. Almost 29,000 are eligible for federal subsidies to buy insurance. The state’s exchange, which is operated as part of a partnership with the federal government, has had more than 595,000 visits since it went online on October 1. Both the state and federal websites have been plagued with technical issues, but officials say that the problems are improving.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Quinn strikes deal to transfer Medicaid verification from outside contractor to public employees

By Jamey Dunn

Under a deal struck between Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration and union officials today, public employees will begin taking over the work of an independent contractor that has been weeding out ineligible applicants for Medicaid benefits.

As part of sweeping Medicaid changes passed last year, the state hired Virginia-based Maximus Health Services to evaluate the eligibility of Medicaid patients. The company checked to see if Medicaid recipients met the income threshold and lived in the state. Maximus then passed on the results of its inquiries to the Illinois Department of Human Services, and the agency reviewed the information before terminating benefits. So far, an estimated 216,000 people have been removed from the program as a result of Maximus’ verification work.

Earlier this year, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 filed a grievance over the state’s contract with Maximus, claiming that it violated its own contract with the state. An arbitrator ruled in favor of AFSCME and ordered Illinois to end its deal with Maximus by December 31. Quinn’s administration appealed the ruling but also entered into negotiations with the AFSCME.

Today they reached a deal that calls for transitioning the work to state employees over the next several months. The plan calls for many of the services currently provided to by Maximus to be transferred to state employees by April 30. It calls for the hiring of 520 DHS employees and an unnamed number of employees at the Department of Health and Family Services. It allows the state to continue to use some Maximus services, such as its data-matching software, call center and mailroom, until 2015. “We want to really focus on making sure that those who are eligible for Medicaid get what they are entitled to by law, [and] those who are not eligible don’t receive what they’re not entitled to. That process will continue aggressively, but we’re going to do it in a way that complies with the arbitrator’s ruling,” Quinn told reporters in Chicago today. Quinn said he moved ahead with a deal instead of continuing to pursue the appeal because he wanted to “move forward as quickly as possible. We don’t want to be in court all next year.”

Republican lawmakers were critical of Quinn’s deal with AFSCME, saying that the governor is failing to defend the very reforms that he touted just a year a ago. “This isn’t a walk back; this is a turn around and sprinting away from the cornerstone of the reforms that were in the [law],” said Mattoon Sen. Dale Righter, who is a key Republican negotiator on Medicaid issues. Righter called Maximus’ work so far “a stunning success for the taxpayers.”

But members of Quinn’s administration said the same kind of work will continue. “This ruling provides the best and most efficient way forward for taxpayers at this time and continues our momentum in rooting out waste, fraud and abuse,” Julie Hamos, director of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said in a written statement. “It’s important to ensure full compliance with the [law], which this ruling does. We are committed to preserving the Illinois Medicaid program at a lower cost to the state while providing health care for our neediest low-income children and families.” A news release from the department said the number of ineligible enrollees will likely decrease in the future. “The cancellation rate is expected to come down because the reviews started with cases that had been flagged for having a discrepancy. The vast majority were canceled because the client did not respond to a request for verifying information about their income or residency.”

Hinsdale Republican Rep. Patti Bellock, who also worked on Medicaid legislation, said that if Quinn wants to tweak the law, he should have to get approval from lawmakers. “If it needs to be changed, then it should be brought back before the General Assembly.” Republicans are accusing Quinn of making a “backroom deal” with AFSCME that could reduce the overall savings that were projected when the law was passed. But AFSCME argued in its case to the arbitrator that the state could actually save money by using public employees for the work. “The arbitrator’s order is a victory for Illinois taxpayers,” AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Henry Bayer said in a written statement. “Wasteful spending on a private contract will be eliminated, trained professional caseworkers will replace unqualified call centers, and state government will ensure that Medicaid is available to those who need it, and cut off from those who don’t.”

Quinn said today in response to his Republican detractors, “I respect everyone, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in court.”

Medical marijuana law goes into effect in January, but patients will have to wait

By Jamey Dunn

The agencies in charge of licensing medical marijuana dispensaries, patients and growers will not begin accepting application until well into 2014. In the meantime, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation is warning patients to avoid scams.

The law creating the state’s medical marijuana pilot program goes into effect on January 1, 2014. But many details still have to go through the rule-making process. A release from the IDFPR said the rules would not be completed until the winter of 2014. Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the department, said her agency would not begin issuing licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries until the rules are in place. The Illinois Department of Public Health, which will license patients, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which will license growers, will also not be able to sign off on any participants until the rule-making process is complete. Hofer said the soonest that could possibly happen would be the summer of 2014, but she said adopting the rules would likely take longer than that. “This is a really complicated thing,” she said, because three state agencies are all integrally involved in the oversight of the three-year pilot program.

The department warns patients to be wary of any clinics or doctors that claim to specialize in medical marijuana. “Unlike some states, Illinois law does not allow for ‘medical cannabis clinics’ or practices that exist solely to offer cannabis certifications,” IDFPR Acting Secretary Manuel Flores said in a written statement. “We want to make sure that patients who would truly benefit from the relief of medical cannabis are not misled and physicians are not violating the law.” IDPH has already filed a complaint against one such clinic in Chicago.

Patients who are ultimately approved for the program are required to have a “bona fide” existing relationship with a doctor who has been treating them for the condition that qualifies them for the program. "There is no specialty in medicine that treats all the various qualifying debilitating medical conditions listed in the act. This means that one physician could not properly treat all patients eligible to use medical cannabis,” said a news release from the department. “Additionally, IDFPR would not consider a physician to be treating a patient for a condition if the only treatment being provided is a written authorization for the used of medical cannabis.” The release said that any doctor or operation that is advertising as a medical marijuana clinic would “immediately” fall under its scrutiny. Patients who obtain cannabis illegally before the program goes into effect run the risk of being disqualified to participate.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Judge's order allows same-sex couples facing illness to marry

By Jamey Dunn

A ruling issued today will allow some couples to wed before the new same-sex marriage law goes into effect next year.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin last month ordered Cook County Clerk David Orr to issue a marriage license to Patricia Ewert and Vernita Gray, who is battling terminal cancer. The couple’s lawyer argued that they deserved the license because Gray’s prognosis means she may not survive to marry when the law goes into effect. Orr, who supports same sex marriage, opted not to defend his office against the suit.

Today, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman issued a ruling that will allow all same-sex couples facing life-threatening illness to apply for marriage licenses before the law kicks in on June 1, 2014. As part of the lawsuit, two couples — Elvie Jordan and Challis Gibbs, and Ronald Dorfman and Ken Ilio — were specifically granted license applications. Dorfman has been diagnosed with a heart condition, and Gibbs has cancer. The ruling creates a legal “subclass” of couples, who have an “urgent need” to marry before the effective date.

 “Given the Illinois General Assembly’s enactment of Senate Bill 10, any erroneous decision here would only result in allowing a relatively few people to marry a short period of time sooner,” Johnson Coleman wrote in her ruling. “The harm to the putative subclass of medically critical plaintiffs, on the other hand, would be far weightier since a denial of relief could effectively deny them the right to marry at all if one member of the couple passes away before June 1, 2014.” Couples in the state seeking to marry immediately because one or both have a life-threatening illness must get a recommendation from a doctor. Couples must have a doctor complete this certification form, available on the Cook County clerk’s website. Once couples get a certification, they can continue through the standard process of obtaining a marriage license.

The lawsuit was filed by Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “When you have a terminal illness, every day is significant. Even though we know the freedom to marry is coming to Illinois, the default implementation date of the new law is too far away for these couples,” Camilla Taylor, Marriage Project director for Lambda Legal, said in a written statement. “While no one should be told that they cannot marry for a period of months, for couples who are dealing with a life-threatening medical condition, the delay in implementing Illinois' marriage law could turn out to be an absolute bar to being married at all. We thank the court and the clerk's office for their swift response to ensure that Illinois couples who are struggling with the challenges of a life-threatening illness will have a chance to be married.”

Friday, December 13, 2013

State launches outreach on big issues

By Jamey Dunn

The state of Illinois is trying to compete with the glittery distraction of the holiday season to inform residents about  the impending implementation of concealed carry, a medical marijuana pilot program and insurance coverage.

The state will not begin accepting concealed carry permit applications until January 5, but the Illinois State Police launched a website this week that is meant to allow applicants to get a jump start on the process. The website gives applicants a checklist of what they will need to apply and directs them to a page where they can get an Illinois Digital ID, which is required for online application. It also provides information on how to obtain electronic fingerprints, which the state police say would expedite the process for applicants.

But not everyone is happy with the state’s high-tech approach to the process. A spokeswoman for the state police said the agency plans to only offer online applications for the “initial phase” of implementing concealed carry. She said that the online system would allow the state to meet the deadlines that are set out in the law. “We are also sensitive the needs of those applicants who may not have the ability to apply online, and we will need to further explore those options as the process moves forward,” Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the state police, said in an email. Among supporters of the new law there is concern about access for those seeking licenses and skepticism that the site will be able to handle a potentially large number of applicants. They point to issues with the online setup — for instance, the page used to issue digital IDs does not work with some popular Internet browsers. (When I tried to access it using Google Chrome, I received an error message that directed me to use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.)

Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsored the new law that will allow for the carry of concealed firearms in the state, said an online only permitting process was never his intent. Phelps said that he has been encouraging people to apply online because he believes that the process will be faster than paper applications. “You’re taking a chance by filing on paper [that] it may take you longer.” But he said that a paper option needs to exist, too. “There are people in this state that do not have access and the resources to do everything electronically.” Phelps said he hopes that the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules will resolve the issue at their meeting, which is scheduled for next week. He wants people to have the option to mail in applications when the state begins accepting them on January 5.

The state also launched a website to inform Illinoisans about the new medical marijuana pilot program. The new law goes into effect on January 1, but the Illinois Department of Public Health has not yet released a date on which it will begin issuing permits to patients. The homepage of the site says: “Members of the public should be aware that full implementation of MCPP will take time. The State of Illinois is warning that it will not be legal for anyone to grow, offer to provide, or to possess, medical cannabis until licenses have been issued and the program is up and running.” In the meantime, visitors to the website can find information about the program and sign up for email alerts.

In addition to both of those efforts, Illinois is kicking off its television advertising campaign to encourage residents to visit the state’s online insurance exchange and purchase coverage. “Now that the federal website has improved, we are shifting from educating consumers to the next phase of encouraging enrollment. We are urging thousands of uninsured residents in Illinois to get covered in this new state of health care that we are entering in 2014,” Jennifer Koehler, Executive Director of Get Covered Illinois, said in a prepared statement. “If you visited GetCoveredIllinois.gov before but didn’t select a plan, come back and try again. With the upgrades to the federal website that were recently put in place, the enrollment system is working much more smoothly. Now is the time to select a plan and get covered.”

The federal online exchange has come under fire for serious glitches. Illinois’ exchange is tied to the federal website, so it has experienced issues as well.

A news release issued by the state’s online marketplace described the advertising campaign: “The nearly $1-million TV ad buy includes the eight major-media markets in Illinois, and is targeted to reach Illinois’ uninsured population. The campaign features one 30-second ad that highlights the all-inclusive nature of the new state of health care across Illinois; and two 15-second spots: one that highlights the fact that insurers can no longer deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, and one that features a mom-to-be.” The campaign, along with 300 events planned statewide, is meant to encourage people to sign up for insurance before the December 23 deadline. People who sign up by that date and pay a premium by December 31 will see their coverage start on January 1. Open enrollment on the exchange will continue through March 31.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thousands in Illinois could lose unemployment benefits

By Jamey Dunn

Thousands of Illinoisans could lose long-term federal unemployment benefits at the start of the new year.

Congress is currently trying to work out a budget deal that both parties can live with, and the long-term benefits may be on the chopping block. The benefits kick in after the typical 26 weeks of state benefits run out. Currently, the maximum time frame over which benefits are allowed, including Illinois benefits and the federal benefits combined, is 73 weeks. The extension was signed into law by former President George W. Bush in 2008 at the beginning of the recent recession.

 According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), if Congress does not vote to continue the benefits, 80,000 people in the state would lose benefits in January. Those benefits total $25.6 million each week. The average weekly benefit to an individual is $320 and the largest possible benefit is $562. The 109,00 Illinoisans currently collecting state benefits would not be affected immediately, but 36,000 of them would qualify for the federal benefits if they do not find jobs in the first quarter of next year.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, have been working to reach a deal that would set the spending numbers for a federal budget, and the unemployment benefits are reportedly on the table. The federal government shut down for more than two weeks in October, after lawmakers could not reach a budget agreement. Some Republicans held out on budget votes because they wanted to halt or delay the rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The shutdown ended after Congress voted to fund the government through January 15.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said he hopes the benefits would be included but said it is not a deal breaker at this point. Durbin told CNN that the benefits might be addressed in a separate bill. "From my understanding, that's more between [House] Speaker [John] Boehner and (President Barack Obama) at this point,” he told CNN. Boehner has said he is open to approving a continuation of the benefits.

An estimated 1.3 million would lose benefits nationwide. Continuing the program would cost projected $25 billion. Supporters say that while the country has technically recovered from the recession, continuing high unemployment rates and the large numbers of long-term unemployed people across the country indicate that the benefits are still needed. “While today’s job growth allows most newly unemployed individuals to find work after a several weeks, the long-term unemployed face additional hurdles,” IDES Director Jay Rowell said in a prepared statement. “Ending this modest program based on a calendar date rather than economic principles and job skills could slow economic growth.”

But those who are opposed to continuing the program argue that the feds must step down the spending that was justified by the country’s economic collapse. “These have been extraordinary extensions, and the Republican position all along has been, we need to get back to normal here at some point,” U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, told ABC News. “I don’t see much appetite from our side for an extension of benefits. I just don’t.”

Little change for state's bond ratings so far

By Jamey Dunn

The major bond rating agencies are having mixed reactions to changes to Illinois' public employee pension systems that were approved and signed into law last week.

Standard & Poor’s rating services upgraded its outlook on the state’s borrowing from “negative” to “developing.” However, the state retains its A- rating from the agency. According to S&P, the new outlook means that the agency could raise or lower the state’s rating in the next two years. “The change reflects the consensus reached on pension reform, which we believe could contribute to a sustainable path to fiscal stability,” S&P credit analyst Robin Prunty said in a prepared statement. “Although we view the consensus achieved by Illinois on this difficult issue as positive from a credit standpoint, the developing outlook reflects the implementation risk — legal and budgetary — associated with various provisions of the pension reform, as well as the overall structural budget challenges facing the state.” The new outlook comes as Illinois is planning to sell $350 million in general obligation bonds later this week.

Gov. Pat Quinn highlighted the change as a positive byproduct of the pension cuts that lawmakers approved and he signed into law. “I am pleased the ratings agencies are recognizing that Illinois is moving in the right direction,” Gov. Quinn said in a prepared statement. “As I’ve always made clear, one of the many reasons to resolve Illinois’ pension crisis was the negative impact it had on our bond rating, which cost taxpayers more money to finance critical repairs and improvements to roads, bridges and schools. This improved outlook will be the first of many positive developments towards a revitalized and stronger Illinois.”

But a change in outlook does not constitute much positive forward motion for the state, especially given how much of a beating Illinois’ credit has taken in recent years. The two other major rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings, both issued positive statements about the new law. But neither has opted to adjust the state’s rating or outlook. Both said they would analyze the law to determine the extent of its fiscal impact. Supporters say it will save $160 billion and fully fund the pension systems by 2043.

Public employee unions are expected to bring a lawsuit against the state because they say the pension cuts violate the state’s Constitution, which contains an explicit protection for retirement benefits. “[Senate Bill 1] won’t save a penny. The bill is unconstitutional, so it’s savings are an illusion. It’s only going to cost the state time and money and kick the can down the road all over again,” said a statement from the We Are One Union coalition. Moody’s said in a brief analysis issued after the bill passed last week, that it would be able to factor the changes in the new law into the state’s credit rating if and when they are upheld by the courts.

All three rating agencies acknowledge that the state is facing other budget issues besides pension reform, including the loss of billions of dollars of revenue when the temporary income tax increase sunsets. The tax rate begins stepping down in 2015. Fitch’s said that the state must address some of its budget challenges to hang on to its current rating, which is the lowest in the country. “In addition to action on pensions, maintenance of the rating will require timely action on a more permanent budget solution to the structural mismatch between spending and revenues in advance of the expiration of temporary tax increases.”

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Quinn quietly signs pension legislation

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn today signed sweeping public pension changes passed by lawmakers earlier this week. 

Hard-fought bipartisan compromises of this nature are usually signed with fanfare and speeches from lawmakers who helped make it happen. That was not the case today with Senate Bill 1. Quinn signed the legislation during a private ceremony in Chicago this afternoon.

SB 1 will reduce annual cost-of-living adjustments for retirees and base them on a formula that is tied to inflation. It will also require workers younger than 46 to work longer for full benefits. Some annual COLAs would be deferred for current employees upon retirement. The number of years an employee must skip the COLA is contingent on years of service. The plan caps pensionable salary at $109,971, but that number would increase annually based on inflation. The provision would not apply to employees who already earn more than the cap. Workers will contribute one percentage point less of their salaries toward retirement benefits. The law also allows pension systems to sue if lawmakers opt to skip out on the annual payment. (For a more detailed rundown on what the law does, see this post.) The proposal is projected to save $160 billion and fully fund the systems by 2043.

Quinn, who once said he was put on Earth to address the woefully underfunded pensions systems, issued a short statement thanking the legislative leaders, all the members of the pension conference committee and other legislative supporters of the bill. “Illinois is moving forward,” Quinn said in a written statement. “This is a serious solution to address the most dire fiscal challenge of our time.” 

While there were no public speeches, some legislative leaders took their victory laps in their statements, which were included in the governor’s news release. “The bill would not have passed without me. I was convinced that standing fast for substantial savings, clear intent and an end to unaffordable annual raises would result in a sound plan that will meet all constitutional challenges," House Speaker Michael Madigan said. “With today’s bill signing we have staved off a greater crisis,” Minority Leader Jim Durkin said. “I am proud many of the significant components are Republican ideas generated by the conference committee, and my predecessor through Senate Bill 1.” Former House Minority Leader Tom Cross had been a key player in pension negotiations over the years. However, he voted against SB 1. Cross left his leadership role in the legislature to run for state treasurer.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno applauded the bipartisan efforts that produced the final compromise. “This is a major step forward in putting Illinois on the path to financial recovery,” Radogno said. “It is the result of bipartisan, bicameral negotiations, after a great deal of debate and discussions. It will demonstrate to the credit rating agencies and job creators that we are serious about turning Illinois around.

Senate President John Cullerton gave some credit to Quinn. “I applaud the governor for prioritizing this issue,” he said. “I look forward to working with him and all legislative leaders to ensure that we continue on this path of fiscal leadership and bipartisan cooperation.”

The measure will go into effect in June of 2014, but the next stop for the law will likely be the state’s court system. Pension benefits are protected by Illinois’ Constitution, and union leaders say the law violates that protection.

 “Gov. Pat Quinn has given hundreds of thousands of working and retired teachers, nurses, police, caregivers, first responders and others no alternative but to seek justice for retirement security through the judicial system. Contrary to his belief, every Illinois citizen loses today,” said a statement from the We Are One union coalition. “Senate Bill 1 is attempted pension theft, and it’s illegal. Once overturned, its purported savings will evaporate, and the state’s finances and pension systems will be left in worse shape. Our coalition has been consistently in contact with our attorneys, and today we directed them to prepare to file suit. We will challenge SB 1 as violating the Constitution and ask for a stay of the legislation's implementation pending a ruling on its constitutionality.”

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Legislators approve changes to state's public pension systems

By Jamey Dunn

After years of debate and several failed attempts, the Illinois General Assembly passed changes today to the state’s pension systems for public employees.

After holding simultaneous floor debates, the Illinois House and Senate voted within minutes of each other to approve a new version of Senate Bill 1. The plan is the product of a special conference committee on pensions and negotiations among legislative leaders. Gov. Pat Quinn said he plans to sign the bill, which he called a “bipartisan victory for the people of Illinois.” Quinn, who voluntarily stopped taking pay until the bill was passed, said that after he signs it, he will look into picking up his back checks. “Today, this day, will always go down in history as the day that the people of Illinois through their elected representatives and senators took action for the future. The people have won. We have all won.”

The proposal is projected to save $160 billion over 30 years and fully fund the pension systems, which are currently underfunded by an estimated $100 billion, by 2043. It would reduce annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for current and future retirees. The bill would apply differently to employees and retirees, depending on how long they worked and which retirement system they belong to. The current COLAs are 3 percent compounding interest. Under the new SB1, the COLA would be determined by 3 percent of pension benefits or 3 percent of the product of years served multiplied by $800 for state employees or $1,000 for teachers and university employees. The COLA would be based on whichever number result is smaller. The numbers used in the formula, $800 and $1,000, would increase along with the Consumer Price Index. Some annual COLAs would be deferred for current employees upon retirement. The number of years an employee must skip the COLA is contingent of years of service.

Employees younger than 46 also would have to retire later. For each year an employee is younger than 46, an additional four months would be tacked onto the time he or she would have to work to receive full benefits. The proposal would also cap pensionable salary at $109,971, but that number would increase annually based on inflation.

The bill would reduce the employee contribution toward retirement benefits by one percentage point and allow the systems to sue the state if it does not make its required payment. However, lawmakers could vote to change the payment schedule and reduce the annual payment. The state would contribute 10 percent of the savings from the plan toward the unfunded liability starting in 2015. The state would also contribute an additional $1 billion after borrowing that was used to make pension payments in the past is paid off.

House Speaker Michael Madigan made his goals for pension changes clear during floor debate today. “We’re here today discussing the issue because of the cost, and what we want to do is get cost savings as a result of this bill.” Madigan said he did not call a union-backed proposal, Senate Bill 2404, for a floor vote in the House because it would not have produced enough savings. He said that the House had set the “high bar of achievement” when it passed an earlier version of SB 1 last spring. That proposal would have saved an estimated $163 billion. The plan failed to gain the needed votes to pass in the Senate. Madigan said that he was “severely criticized” for not allowing the SB 2404 to to be called in the House after it passed in the Senate. But he said today that he did not call it because he wanted to “shape the issue” and give people time to understand the difference in cost savings between the bills. He also wanted lawmakers “to understand that our goal is to achieve the most cost savings feasible as a result of the legislation.”

Madigan said that pensions had become “too rich” to be sustained, and that he and Republican leaders hoped to keep the savings from any new proposal near to those that would have been achieved by the previous SB 1. Madigan also said today that he believes COLAs, the biggest cost driver among the pension benefits, are not protected by the state’s Constitution. The speaker said that a smaller portion of the savings in the new version of SB 1 would be derived from benefit cuts. Under the old bill, almost two thirds of the savings were reductions, but under the new plan, the unfunded liability reduction would be split about half and half between cuts and additional funding.

Opponents argued that the issue is about more than the bottom line. “If this were only about picking the bill that saves the most money, we’d all pick the bill that saves the most money,” said Sen. Toi Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields Democrat. “It’s about taking people’s retirement benefits right when they need them the most, after they’ve worked hard and earned those benefits.”

Aurora Democratic Sen. Linda Holmes, the only member of the conference committee who did not support the bill, said that the plan was akin to theft. “I don’t know how there’s one person here with any understanding of business, with any understanding of contracts, who can sit there and say what we’re doing is right. This is wrong.” Homes and Hutchinson both said that the bill violates the state’s constitutional protection of pension benefits. That provision says: “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

Hutchinson said of the constitutionality of SB 1: “I’m not a constitutional lawyer. I’m really not. But I can read, and it’s in the Constitution.”

Supporters of the bill say that the reduction in employee contributions and the funding guarantee offer a consideration in exchange for the benefits that would be reduced. The idea behind their argument is that under contract law, a benefit could be reduced if something else of value is offered as a consideration for the reduction. However many argue — including Senate President John Cullerton at one time — that employees would have to agree to the swap for it to pass muster. Cullerton’s SB 2404 would have offered employees choices between COLA reductions or state-subsidized health care in retirement.

Not all who voted in favor of the law today say they are certain that the bill is constitutional. However, they say that the crisis is too big to ignore. “The legislative process involves compromise. When it comes to pension reform, a compromise was found at the intersection of policy and political feasibility. The General Assembly stumbled at this intersection for years. Now, it’s time to move forward and allow the courts to rule on the constitutionality of our approach,” Cullerton said in a prepared statement. 

Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, who was chair of the conference committee, said that if the Illinois Supreme Court did strike down the bill, the justices would likely give some indication in their opinion of what steps they think lawmakers could take on pension changes. “We have the worst unfunded liability in the United States of America, and we can’t continue to be cemented into a stalemate,” he said. “We cannot continue to be the embarrassment of the nation. We must act to steer our ship in the right direction.”

Madigan said he thinks the courts will uphold the bill. “Something’s got to be done. Something’s got to be done. We can’t go on dedicating so much of our resources to this one sector of pensions,” he said. The changes will apply to four of the five state pension systems: teachers, university employees, legislators and state government employees. Judges' pensions will not be affected under SB 1. 

Union officials say SB 1 goes too far and is unconstitutional. They maintain that SB 2404 was the best choice. “There’s no victory in a bill that will get tied up in court, no victory in harming the lives of teachers and firefighters and nurses to a far greater degree than is just and necessary,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “We feel it's blatantly unconstitutional, and so claiming it saves $160 billion is a disturbing illusion. It will save no money at all.” There is some debate about whether opponents will have to wait until the law goes into effect in June before they can file suit. But at least one union leader indicated today that a suit could come sooner than June. “We would have to wait until the governor signs it, and then we can file a suit at any time. And then we’ll do it when we’re ready and when it’s most appropriate,” Montgomery said.

Other opponents said that the state should completely scrap its defined benefits system and move employees to a 401(k)-type plan for future benefits. Advocates for such plans argue that only employee benefits earned to date are protected by the Constitution. Rep. Thomas Morrison, a Palatine Republican, said that because the state has the worst-funded pension system in the nation, lawmakers have go to “go big” on reforms to solve the problem.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said she is aware of the human toll that cutting pensions would take. “We're very cognizant of the fact that this is not just a numbers issue, but it’s a people issue as well.” During negotiations, she pushed for a provision that would allow low-income retirees to keep their current COLAs until their pensions reached $30,000. But she said that that the changes must be made to address the state’s fiscal problems. She said that if the pension issue is addressed, other concerns such as the state’s overdue bills, will be easier to tackle. She also said that making the systems solvent should provide employees and retirees some piece of mind, even if they are upset that their pensions will be reduced. “They will be able to count on the benefits once we pass this bill,” she said on the Senate floor.

Several opponents on the Republican side argued only that lawmakers should slow down the process. They said there was not enough time for them to fully understand the more-than-300-page bill or for the public to grasp what was at stake. Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale was among them.

The proposal has the support of all four legislative leaders and Gov. Pat Quinn. Nonetheless. speculation that it might not pass was still floating around earlier today. (Those assessments may have been caution from supporters and wishful thinking from opponents.) Two other Republican candidates for governor, Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, both opposed the measure in the lead-up to the vote. Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk also panned the bill, dismissing it as gimmicks that would not solve the problem.

Republican legislative leaders acknowledged that the political hubbub made their attempts to get votes for SB 1 more difficult. Radogno said she was glad that 10 members of her 18-member caucus voted in favor of the bill. “That’s more than half. I’m very pleased with it. It was a contentious vote,” Radogno said. “The caucus was a microcosm of the opposition that we heard outside. You had the folks that were very much from the union districts and were not going to be for the pension reform no matter what. And then you had people that were very ideological, saying that this isn’t good enough; we ought to just not do anything and let chaos reign and then we can come in and do something better.” New House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said that his vote count changed throughout the day. He said that the influence from people such as Rauner, as well as lobbying from union members, probably played a role. But he said that getting the vote done now was likely key to its passage. “I quite frankly believed that if we did not pass a bill today, that we would not see one next year because then it would get caught up in the governor’s election and all the drama that goes into it every four years.”

Madigan, who is known for delivering votes at crunch time, said it wasn’t easy. “Well, this was difficult because of the strength of the opposition and the intensity of the calls and contacts generated by organized labor among the Democrats. On the Republican side, their problem apparently was some of the gubernatorial candidates thinking about the campaign rather than the seriousness of the issue.” 

Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has been working on the pension issue for more than two years, said that today’s vote might be the first in a series of bills to address underfunded pension systems. “I think that this will free up a lot of energy and capacity in the General Assembly to start focusing on the needs of the city [of Chicago] and they are significant and in may ways more immediate than the state’s need in terms of addressing the shortfalls in their pensions systems.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel came to Springfield in 2012 and appealed to lawmakers for changes to the city’s pension systems. Many other municipalities are also struggling with underfunded pension systems. “There are police and fire pension systems around this state that are funded in the 10 [percent] to 20[percent] to 25 percent range that are very much at risk of being insolvent. Our work on pensions is by no means done. But this [vote] will let a lot of air back in the room to start addressing the other systems,” Nekritz said. Cullerton agreed. “Pension reform isn’t done. I am committed to building on our momentum and providing relief for our local communities facing similar problems. Specifically, it is critical that we turn our focus to the financial crisis facing the Chicago Public Schools’ pension system. I look forward to working with all leaders on this critical issue.”

Pension lobbying efforts go down to the wire

By Jamey Dunn

Supporters and opponents of proposed changes to the state’s public pension systems are expecting close votes on legislation today.

A special conference committee, aided by some final negotiations among legislative leaders, produced a pension bill that has bipartisan support. However, those counting noses today say that the margin to get the bill passed is tight, especially in the Senate. Senate President John Cullerton did not attend a Senate hearing on the bill this morning. According to conference committee chair Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, Cullerton was working to round up votes for the new version of Senate Bill 1. Raoul said he would be doing the same after the committee adjourned. “It’s very close. It’s very close,” he said. Raoul said that lawmakers should ignore the opposition coming from high profile candidates and politicians such as Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner and Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk. “I think there’s a time when the politics of self preservation need to be set aside, and I think this is one of those times,” he said. “So I think some people need to visit the wizard and get some courage and vote the best interest of the state of Illinois.”

The proposal is projected to save $160 billion over 30 years and fully fund the pension system by 2043. It would reduce annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for current and future retirees. While previous plans have cut COLAs in a more straightforward way, this bill would apply differently to employees and retirees, depending on how long they worked and which retirement system they belong to. The current COLAs are 3 percent compounding interest. Under the new SB1, the COLA would be determined by 3 percent of salary or 3 percent of the product of years served multiplied by $800 for state employees or $1,000 for teachers and university employees. The COLA would be based on whichever number is smaller. The number for teachers and university employees is larger because workers in both systems generally do not get Social Security benefits. Some annual COLAs would be deferred for current employees upon retirement. The number is contingent of years of service. Employees younger than 46 would also have to retire later. For each year an employee is younger than 46, an additional four months would be tacked onto the time he or she would have to work to receive full benefits.

The proposal would also cap pensionable salary at $109,971, but that number would increase annually based on inflation. The plan would reduce the employee contribution toward retirement benefits by one percentage point and allow the systems to sue the state if it does not make its required payment. However, lawmakers could vote to change the payment schedule and reduce the annual payment. 

Raoul said that this new version of SB 1 is similar to a previous version, which passed in the House but twice failed to gain the votes needed in the Senate. “This is very close to the same level of savings of Senate Bill 1, it’s just put together in a different way.” Raoul did not support that legislation when it came up for a vote in the Senate, but he said his work on the conference committee has made him realize that he cannot get his way on every aspect of the issue. “We were in a stalemate, and we had to compromise. And this is where we are. This is our best chance to get this thing done to get it moving forward,” Raoul said. He added: “This is a tough vote, I will not deny that. ... We will have probably a very spirited discussion in our caucus.”

Union officials say that the new version of the proposal’s resemblance to the old SB 1 is part of the problem. “I am having flashbacks to the House’s SB 1. After months of conference committee meetings, the so called compromise bill that you consider today is nearly identical to where you started — a bill twice rejected by the Senate,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “There is only one way to describe that kind of blatant taking of ones life savings. We call it theft.” They called upon lawmakers to instead approve a union-backed plan that passed in the Senate last spring but was never called for a House vote. “We believe very firmly that there are problems that need to be solved and it in all of our interests as a state to solve them,” Montgomery said. Lawyers representing labor say that the bill is unconstitutional because it does not offer workers something of value in exchange for their benefits “There is no consideration. There is no offer and acceptance. There is no indication that anyone affected by this agrees to these changes. Therefore we’re left with the matter of unconstitutional changes [to benefits],” said John Stevens, a lawyer for the We Are One unions' coalition

Supporters of SB 1 say that the bill does offer workers and retirees consideration in the form of a funding guarantee and a reduction by 1 percentage point of employees' contributions to their benefits. Raoul said that no matter what was in the proposal, it would likely face a constitutional challenge. But he said hat the issue has reached the point where lawmakers must take action and see what the courts decide. “I think this bill will be challenged, and I think that there will be strong arguments that can be made on both sides of it, but we’ve got to get to that point. Let’s say that this bill was found unconstitutional. I think it’s very likely that the court would give us guidance as to what we can do. And if it’s found constitutional, then we’ve taken a major step towards securing our state. But we’ve got to get to that point. We can’t continue to just play this ping pong game and say that we can’t vote on anything because of a constitutional debate.”

Montgomery said that if the bill is approved and signed into law, his organization plans to file a lawsuit “a soon as we can.” But in the meantime, those on both sides of the issue are lobbying lawmakers hard. “I think they’re really faced with a choice. ... So they’re really coming to the brink of the abyss here, and some lawmakers have some real tough choices,” Montgomery said. “It’s very close. ... Very close in the Senate. I think there’s trouble finding the requisite votes on both sides of the aisle, but we will see.”

Monday, December 02, 2013

Politics swirl around pension vote

By Jamey Dunn

The political fallout has begun over a deal reached by legislative leaders to make changes to the state’s public employee pension systems.

The proposal, which is yet another version of Senate Bill 1, is projected to save $160 billion over 30 years and fully fund the pension system by 2043.

The legislation would reduce annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for current and future retirees. While previous plans have cut COLAs in a more straightforward way, this bill would apply differently to employees and retirees, depending on how long they worked and which retirement system they are a member. The current COLAs are 3 percent compounding interest. Under the new SB1, the COLA would be determined by 3 percent of salary or 3 percent of the product of years served multiplied by $800 for state employees or $1,000 for teachers and university employees. The COLA would be based on whichever number is smaller. The number for teachers and university employees is larger because workers in both systems generally do not get Social Security benefits. Some annual COLAs would be deferred for current employees upon retirement. The number is contingent of years of service.

Employees younger than 46 would also have to retire later. For each year an employee is younger than 46, an additional four months would be tacked onto the time he or she would have to work to receive full benefits. The proposal would also cap pensionable salary at $109,971, but that number would increase annually based on inflation. The plan would reduce the employee contribution toward retirement benefits by one percentage point and allow the systems to sue the state if it does not make its required payment. However, lawmakers could vote to change the payment schedule and reduce the annual payment. Since the details of the plan were released last week, candidates running in the 2014 elections have been weighing in.

Only one Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady, came out strongly in favor of the proposal. “I will be voting in support of this legislation, which has been crafted through months of discussion, exhaustive analysis and legislative debate. It will not be an easy vote by any means; in fact it will be one of the most difficult votes I have ever cast,” Brady said in a written statement. Brady served on the conference committee that helped to craft the legislation. “It’s not fair to ask state employees and teachers who have paid every dime they owed to the system to make a sacrifice. It’s necessary, however, because governors and legislators who voted for budgets over the last decade did nothing more than delay the resolution we now have before us.”

Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, said the plan goes too far by not offering employees legitimate consideration for the benefits they would lose. “I have taken due consideration over the long Thanksgiving weekend to evaluate the proposal for State Public Pension Reform. Having examined the information available, I do not support the current legislation. I do not believe it will withstand judicial review should it pass the Illinois General Assembly,” Rutherford said in a written statement. “Strong beliefs are held in this debate, but fundamental to our rule of law is our Constitution. Our government’s obligation can be changed through a process involving adequate consideration to the employees. In my opinion, the legislation before us fails to address this relationship and offer adequate consideration in exchange for altering the pension benefits.”

Union leaders agree with Rutherford that the plan is unconstitutional. “It’s an unfair, unconstitutional scheme that undermines retirement security,” said a statement issued by the We are One Coalition last week.

University of Illinois leaders also oppose the bill. Previous versions of pension reform were based on proposals from the U of I’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “The University of Illinois called for a pension system that would be reasonable, responsible, sustainable and competitive with those offered by our peer institutions,” said an email to employees from U of I President Robert Easter; Phyllis Wise, chancellor of the U of I at Urbana-Champaign; Paula Allen-Meares, chancellor of U of I at Chicago; and Susan Koch, chancellor of the U of I at Springfield. “In our view, the legislation under consideration fails to meet those basic principles. The likely changes arguably lessen the retirement commitments made to employees and retirees, and their net effect also will harm the public higher education sector in Illinois.”

Hinsdale Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard, who also is running for governor, has yet to take a stance on the bill. He has instead called for multiple hearings and time before a vote to ensure that lawmakers understand the legislation. “Addressing pension reform is an essential first step in working our way out of a deep fiscal hole,” Dillard said. “But we must know what's in the bill and not rush a vote merely because we've been assured by the leaders and Gov. [Pat] Quinn that this is the best deal for the people of Illinois.” Dillard is not alone. Other Republican lawmakers have complained that they are being pushed to vote too quickly on the more-than-300-page bill.

 Supporters of the plan say the changes in the bill are nothing new to lawmakers who have been debating the issue for years. “We’ve been working on this issue for two years. There’s [been] plenty of time to take a look at every single aspect. It’s been debated, discussed, looked over, analyzed scrutinized — you name it,” Quinn said in Chicago today. “The time for review is fast eclipsing. It’s time now to vote. That’s what the people want. They want their legislators to take this bill that’s been discussed in many different ways and vote on it, and I think a vote ‘yes’ is the best way for our state to go.” Quinn said that the vote would be the “most important” fiscal vote taken by lawmakers during their legislative careers. But he said that anytime there is an important vote, opponents look for ways to block it. “There’s always going to be a do-nothing caucus, and they will say anything in order to continue to do nothing.” The governor added: “I think everyone who is interested in the future of Illinois, the common good, what’s good for taxpayers, should join us in urging a ‘yes’ vote tomorrow for the pension reform.”

Quinn’s own Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon issued a statement today opposing the plan. She says it should do more to protect low-income employees and retirees. “While I congratulate the legislative leaders who came together in a bipartisan way to produce a pension compromise, the proposed legislation puts too much of the burden on lower income workers and retirees,” she said. Simon is also in candidate mode. She is challenging Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, and the statement was issued by her campaign staff.

Meanwhile, Republican venture capitalist and gubernatorial hopeful Bruce Rauner slammed the proposal, saying it would “guarantee a future of higher taxes.” He said the cuts to benefits do not go far enough and proposes moving workers into a 401(k)-style plan. Rauner and others argue that employee benefits earned to date are protected by the Constitution, but future benefits are not. “Government workers and retirees deserve to be treated fairly. But let’s not forget who pays for this — it’s the hard working taxpayers of our state, who themselves are struggling to make ends meet in an economy that is weighed down by the fiscal blunders in Springfield,” he said in a prepared statement. “We can have a pension system that is fair to both sides of this transaction, the government workers and the taxpayers who pay for it. True reform would cap the current system and fully put in place a 401(k)-style program that is similar to the retirement plans of most Illinoisans. That’s fair to workers and taxpayers, and it ensures we will never face a pension crisis again.”

While Rauner dismissed SB 1, many other business leaders in the state have voiced their support. “The pension crisis is by far the most pressing economic issue facing the state of Illinois today. Despite rapidly escalating pension contributions that are consuming the state’s budget and crowding out funding for critical state services, the fiscal health of the pension funds themselves continues to deteriorate. The bill is a good bill and deserves your support. It incorporates a number of benefit reforms that have been widely discussed and that we have supported in the past,” said a letter sent to lawmakers and signed by several prominent representatives of Illinois business. Those signed on include Tyrone Fahner, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a group that led the charge for pension reform in the state; Gregory Baise, president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association; David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association; and Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “While not a solution to all of the state’s fiscal problems, this bill is a significant step forward. It will stabilize the pension systems and help put Illinois on the path to fiscal stability.”

Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who served on the pension conference committee, said of the letter: “I think that that will be very significant in giving people the security that they need that the business interests in the state line up in support.” Nekritz said that while others might have different ideas about how to tackle the problem, they don’t have the votes needed to pass their plans. “We’ve always been trying to achieve a balance with this legislation, and I think that this is a balanced approach, a moderate approach, a compromise approach that actually can pass. It’s one thing to talk about all the things that you’d like to see, but if you can’t put votes on it, then it isn’t any good.”

Those who would rather not see the bill pass tomorrow say that the opposition coming at the issue from two different sides — some arguing that it does not cut benefits enough and others that it cuts too much — could manage to kill the bill through their combined lobbying efforts. “What happens tomorrow, I don’t know?” said Rep. Raymond Poe, a Springfield Republican. Poe represents many state workers and says he does not support the bill. “If both of those forces get together, we may be back to start over again. So who knows where we’re at for sure. ... It’s going to be funny tomorrow to see how that all shakes out.”

Evanston Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss, who also served on the conference committee, said that the opposition on both sides of the spectrum is to be expected. “It’s a compromise. There are those on the right who oppose compromise, who are hard-line dead-enders and don’t want to see us accomplish something. And so we have those opposing it. And of course there are those in [organized] labor who are very concerned that it gives too much, and I understand where they are coming from. But the bottom line is, this is a reasonable sound compromise that saves a lot of money, shelters the people in greatest need and puts us on a path to sustainability.”

Both the House and Senate plan to hold session tomorrow. A hearing on SB 1 is scheduled for 8:30 a.m.  It's difficult to deny the politics of the issue when they may have even had a hand in the timing of a potential vote. The deadline for candidates — including potential challengers to legislators — to file paperwork to appear on the spring primary election ballot passed at 5 p.m. on Monday.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Leaders reach tentative deal on public employee pensions

By Jamey Dunn
and Maureen Foertsch McKinney

The four legislative leaders reached a tentative agreement today on a solution to the state’s pension crisis that reportedly would create a defined contribution plan for public employees, change cost of living adjustments for retirees, raise the retirement age, boost state contributions and save $160 billion over 30 years. Lawmakers are expected to be get details Friday.

“This is the first time the four leaders have come to an agreement. I think that’s very significant and bodes well for getting something done,’’ said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has been a key player in the efforts to change the state’s pension systems.

The cost of living adjustment (COLA) for retirees would be based on $1,000 times years of service, according to a Crain’s Chicago Business report. For instance, a retiree who had worked 30 years would receive an annual COLA on $30,000 of his or her pension.

“What we’re doing will benefit long-term low-income workers,’’ House Speaker Michael Madigan said during a news conference after the meeting.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reported that the youngest workers could see their retirement age pushed back as much as five years.

A December 3 special session, at which a vote could be taken, was scheduled earlier this week. The pension funds for retiree benefits have an estimated unfunded liability of nearly $100 billion.

Gov. Pat Quinn praised the informal pact. “I commend the legislative leaders — Senate President John Cullerton, House Speaker Mike Madigan, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin — for their hard work to reach this critical agreement. I also commend members of the conference committee for their work throughout the summer and fall to get us to this point.

Union leaders as a coalition, We Are One, expressed opposition shortly after the leadership meeting concluded. “Unions representing hundreds of thousands of public employees and retirees were not included in the leaders’ talks. If their new plan is in line with what’s been reported from earlier discussions, then it’s an unfair, unconstitutional scheme that undermines retirement security.

"It’s no compromise at all with those who earned and paid for their retirement benefits. In fact, reports suggest the leaders have repackaged Senate Bill 1 and barely bothered to disguise it. On top of this, by expanding 401(k) plans, the leaders will further jeopardize retirement security for the vast majority of public employees and retirees who are not eligible for Social Security.

“If their bill resembles SB 1, we will urge lawmakers to reject it and continue to fight to protect the hard-earned life-savings of Illinois public servants as well as the sanctity of the state’s Constitution.”

Madigan’s plan, SB 1, would not have offered employees a say in their benefit cuts. The proposal would have saved more than Cullerton’s plan by slashing cost-of-living increases, capping pensionable salary, increasing retirement ages for employees younger than 36 and increasing employee contributions to their retirement benefits.

After calls for special legislative sessions didn’t work, Quinn ratcheted up the pressure on lawmakers to approve pension changes when he vetoed the funds for their pay in July. The move did not spur legislative action. Instead, Cullerton and Madigan sued over the pay freeze, and Cook County Circuit Court judge ordered the state to cut the checks. Quinn has appealed the issue to the Illinois Supreme Court, but members of the General Assembly are being paid in the meantime.

If leaders are in agreement, they have come a long way since the end of the spring legislative session, when Madigan and Cullerton each dug in behind two different proposals. Cullerton negotiated a proposal with public employee unions that would have asked them to weigh their pension benefits versus their state-subsidized retiree health care and make decisions that would have reduced their benefits somewhere along that spectrum. Madigan’s legislation passed the House but failed miserably in the Senate. The Senate approved Cullerton’s plan, but Madigan refused to allow a vote on it in the House.

“Obviously, this is a session where we have not enjoyed great success. That’s very obvious,” Madigan said during his annual end-of-session closing floor speech in the spring. Pension reform and other high-profile issues, such as same-sex marriage, had not been resolved. “However, that does not mean that we are going to walk away from our responsibility.”

After the inaction at the end of the spring session, Quinn called for a conference committee made up of members of both parties and both chambers to work together on the compromise. Committee members say they made some substantial progress, but Republicans had concerns about the level of savings that the proposals they were considering might produce. Democrats had reservations about increasing the retirement age and introducing a 401(k)-style option across all the systems. The university retirement system currently has such an option, but some Democrats were concerned that those who support a mandatory move to 401(k) accounts would use a more widespread version of the concept as a way to try to push all retirees in that direction. The negotiations were then kicked up to the legislative leaders.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Illinois House plans one-day session on December 3

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's office sent an email to House members telling them to plan for a legislative session day on December 3.

The communication says that some committee hearings will be held a week from today and that House members should expect legislative session to begin at 11 a.m. next Tuesday. “The House would expect this to be a one day session.”

The four legislative leaders have been meeting to discuss changes to public employee pension systems. A special bipartisan committee has been working on a plan for months. Group members said they made progress but they had yet to reach a deal, so the leaders have picked up the issue to try to craft an agreement. They have not yet, but those close to the issue say they are optimistic. “I think that they are making progress, and I think setting a date is a good sign for a positive conclusion,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said in an email: “The speaker continued the negotiations he initiated during the final week of the veto session over the weekend with phone conversations with other leaders. He indicated there was continued progress.”

The Senate has not released a plan for a December session. Ronald Holmes, a spokesperson for Senate President John Cullerton, said a pension deal has not yet been reached, but a leaders' meeting scheduled for tomorrow “should provide further clarity on a pathway forward.”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Some Illinoisans may get to renew canceled insurance plans

By Jamey Dunn

After the rollout of Obamacare got off to a rocky start, some Illinoisans may be able to keep their insurance polices that do not meet the minimum requirements of the law.

The Illinois Department of Insurance announced today that it will allow insurance providers to renew for one year plans sold on the individual marketplace that do not meet the coverage levels required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The new law requires that insurance plans offer a set base level of coverage in 10 “essential health” categories, such as prescription coverage, ambulatory care and preventative care.

President Barack Obama’s administration also announced today that it was extending one of the deadlines to purchase insurance through the online marketplace. Under the original plan, consumers who wanted their insurance to kick in by January 1 were required to make their purchase by December 15. The administration has moved that cutoff back to December 23. The change does not apply to other deadlines. The end of the enrollment period for 2014 is still set for March 2014, and those who are still uninsured at that point would potentially face penalty fees under the individual mandate.

Obama’s previous statements that Americans who like their insurance coverage could keep it after the law went into effect has come under harsh criticism after insurance companies began canceling polices that did not offer the basic coverage required. The Illinois Department of Insurance estimates that 185,340 Illinois residents have been notified that their coverage has been canceled.
In the face of the backlash, the administration has decided to allow companies to renew those plans. State insurance officials in each state must also approve the renewal of such plans. “DOI came to this decision based on the concerns raised by Illinois consumers and the guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,” Andrew Boron, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance, said in a prepared statement. “Allowing companies to renew current plans gives consumers more time to evaluate their options and will provide a smoother transition into the health care coverage system envisioned by the ACA.

While Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas, Oregon, South Carolina, Colorado, Hawaii and Texas have approved the president's  proposal, officials in some states, such as New York, said they do not plan to.

Insurance providers will be able to renew plans, but it is up to the companies to decide whether they will offer renewals. They will also be required to notify customers that they are waiving protections afforded by the new law. The companies must also let customers know they can shop for alternative plans on the online health insurance exchange and may be eligible for federal subsidies to purchase insurance that does meet the coverage requirements.

The online exchange has been plagued with technical problems, and many consumers have been unable to create accounts, let alone find out what plans would cost or what subsidies they might be able to get. Officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say they plan to have the website fully operational for most users by the end of this month.

Check out this Stateline story for a good Q&A on the policy change and a breakdown of how other states are handling it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Quinn signs same-sex marriage bill into law

By Jamey Dunn

As Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law legalizing same sex-marriage in Illinois today, supporters clapped, waved rainbow flags, a symbol of the gay rights movement, and cheered in celebration.

 “It’s time to stop planning rallies and start planning weddings. Congratulations,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said at the Chicago event.

 “Today we’re here to celebrate family, commitment, love, courage and community,” said Rep. Greg Harris, the sponsor of Senate Bill 10. “This was a labor of love, and it was a mammoth undertaking.” The Illinois Senate approved the legislation in February, and the House voted in favor earlier this month.

Republican state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said that voting for the bill was politically difficult for many, especially those in her own party. Four Republican lawmakers, including former House Minority Leader Tom Cross, voted in favor of the law. “History, I think, will show that we got it right on this one.” She said the new law means that the state will not discriminate against loving couples who want to start a family, which she said is “a beautiful thing.” Topinka added, “I am available to be a flower girl, and I’ll even waive the fee.”

Speakers at the event acknowledged the historic nature of the day and used the opportunity to call on other states to follow suit. “This new law is an epic victory for equal rights in America. Illinois is moving forward. We are a model for our country. If the Land of [President Abraham] Lincoln can achieve marriage equality, so can every other state in the nation,” said Gov. Pat Quinn. The governor signed the bill on a desk that belonged to the 16th president, who is a favorite source of quotations for Quinn. 

“We’ve realized that to have a forward-moving state, you can’t have backward-looking laws,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “I hope that the leaders across the county follow the lead that we are taking here in Illinois.”

While the day was historic, it was also personal for many. Jim Darby is a Korean War veteran. He and his partner, Patrick Bova, want to be buried next to each other in the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, and Bova said the new law will allow them to be. “We have been together for over 50 years. I can remember so many times when I was celebrating family’s and friends’ anniversaries and thinking how wonderful it would be to celebrate my marriage to Jim. Finally that day has come,” Bova said. “Today is the day when we can look back on our five decades together and say, 'We can finally be newlyweds.'”

As usual, House Speaker Michael Madigan kept his comments short. He thanked those lawmakers who were involved in the passage of the bill and simply said, “I’m very happy to join with everyone in the celebration.”

While it was a time of celebration for many, some opponents also recognized the day. The head of Springfield’s Roman Catholic Diocese, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, presided over “prayers of supplication and exorcism” at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield today. In a statement issues last week, Paprocki called political supporters of same-sex marriage “morally complicit as co-operators in facilitating this grave sin.”

But supporters of the new law say they are moving on. Harris said, paraphrasing Lincoln, “Sometimes we walk slowly, but we never walk back.” The new law will go into effect on June 1. However there is a bill filed that could potentially move up the effective date. Lawmakers will not be able to take action on that bill until after January 1.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

JPMorgan Chase to pay Illinois pension systems $100 million under federal settlement

By Jamey Dunn

As part of a $13 billion national settlement, JPMorgan Chase & Co. has agreed to pay millions to Illinois’ public employee pensions systems for not disclosing the risks associated with some investments.

As part of the settlement, JPMorgan Chase admitted that it the misrepresented the quality of mortgage-backed investments it sold. “Without a doubt, the conduct uncovered in this investigation helped sow the seeds of the mortgage meltdown,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a prepared statement. “JPMorgan was not the only financial institution during this period to knowingly bundle toxic loans and sell them to unsuspecting investors, but that is no excuse for the firm’s behavior. The size and scope of this resolution should send a clear signal that the Justice Department’s financial fraud investigations are far from over. No firm, no matter how profitable, is above the law, and the passage of time is no shield from accountability.”

Under the deal, the bank will pay $100 million to Illinois pension systems that purchased the investments prior to 2009. “We are still cleaning up the mess that Wall Street made with its reckless investment schemes and fraudulent conduct,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a written statement. “Today’s settlement with Chase will assist Illinois to recover its losses from the dangerous and deceptive securities that put our economy on the path to destruction.” Madigan has been working with President Barack Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. The group’s investigations spurred this and other settlements from big banks and mortgage servicers. According to a news release from Madigan, JPMorgan Chase will pay $72.4 million to the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS), $16.2 million to the State Universities Retirement System (SURS) and $11.4 million to the Illinois State Board of Investment, which oversees the State Employees’ Retirement System (SRS), General Assembly Retirement System and Judges’ Retirement System (GARS).

The settlement is the largest in U.S. history. It also includes a $4 billion settlement with the Federal Housing Finance Agency and a $4 billion for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some of that money will go toward loans the bank is forgiving or giving more favorable terms to borrowers. Some will go to new low-interest loans to borrowers in areas hit hardest by the housing crisis. The funds will also be used to tear down long-abandoned homes.

JPMorgan Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon said in a prepared statement: “Today’s settlement covers a very significant portion of legacy mortgage-backed securities-related issues for JPMorgan Chase, as well as Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual.” The company recently announced it has set aside $23 billion to pay for potential settlements.

Justice Department officials say that the settlement does not absolve JPMorgan employees from future civil or criminal charges. “The agreement does not release individuals from civil charges, nor does it release JPMorgan or any individuals from potential criminal prosecution. In addition, as part of the settlement, JPMorgan has pledged to fully cooperate in investigations related to the conduct covered by the agreement,” a statement from the department said.

Friday, November 15, 2013

DCFS director steps down

Richard Calica, the director of the state’s troubled Department of Children and Family Services, announced today that he is stepping down from the agency because of health concerns.

According to a news release from Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, Calica, who has been diagnosed with cancer, has resigned his position. DCFS Chief of Staff Denise Gonzales is now acting director. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve under Governor Quinn,” Calica, who has served as director since 2011, said in a prepared statement. “This has been the most exciting and rewarding time of my career in child welfare. The reforms that we’ve put in place will maximize this agency’s ability to ensure the safety of children who are at risk of abuse and neglect for years to come.”

Calica came into the job at a difficult time for DCFS. The agency was violating a federal consent decree by having too few front line investigators and had awarded millions of dollars to contractors for work that could not be verified. Calica was a social worker for much of his career and served as executive director of the Chicago-based Jane Addams-founded Juvenile Protective Association. His blunt nature sometime ruffled feathers during his time at DCFS. He oversaw a rebalancing of staff in an effort to come into compliance with the federal court order. That change added 138 new front line investigators and cut caseloads in half. However, DCFS still has its problems. During the last fiscal year, child deaths from abuse or neglect hit a 30-year high in the state, according to an investigation from the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ Chicago.

Calica plans to work with DCFS on its transition to new leadership. “My prayers are with director Calica and his family during this very difficult time,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “Director Calica has taken this agency in the right direction, and he always put the safety of our most vulnerable children first. We are deeply grateful for his dedicated public service, which has saved countless lives.”

Form more on Calica, see this profile from Illinois Issues June 2012.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fewer than 2,000 Illinoisans have picked an insurance plan through the online exchange

By Jamey Dunn

Since the online insurance exchange, a key piece of the federal health care reform law, was launched in October, fewer than 2,000 Illinoisans have chosen insurance plans through the Internet marketplace. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released enrollment numbers today for the insurance exchange, which is an important part of the federal health care law known as Obamacare. The statistics also included state-run exchanges. Nationwide, 106,185 people have selected plans. In Illinois, the number is 1,370. However, 30,901 have completed applications seeking information on coverage for 56,636 people. According to HHS, 11,603 Illinoisans have been deemed eligible for federal subsidies to buy insurance, and 19,447 have been deemed eligible for Medicaid.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during a conference call announcing the numbers today that the federal exchange has had 28.6 million unique hits since its launch on October 1. “In every part of our country, Americans are very interested in the affordable health coverage that’s being offered through the marketplace and through Medicaid.” But the website has been unable to meet that demand, and users have been greeted by slow load times and crashes. Sebelius has apologized for the problems and said HHS is “working 24/7” to fix the problems. She admits that things are still not working as well as hoped but said that the goal is to have the site fully operational by the end of this month for the “vast majority” of users. “We are clearly, here on the 13th of November, not where we want to be on the 30th of November.”

The department has sent emails to users who tried to create an account previously, asking them to come back and give it another shot. However, one reporter participating in the conference call said he was unable to create an account when he tried. I was also unable to create an account after trying for more than an hour. HHS staff said that our experiences were isolated incidents, which were not necessarily indicative of the majority of consumers’ experiences with the website. “It is getting better. It’s getting better everyday. So I would urge people to visit the site,” Sebelius said. Contrasting that positivism are the descriptions opponents use to characterize the rollout of the exchange. U.S. Rep. Aaron Shock, a Republican from Illinois, called it an “unmitigated disaster” yesterday. “This was a monumental mistake to go live and effectively explode on the launch pad,” U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, said during a recent congressional hearing on the rollout. House Republicans have voted more than 40 times to repeal the law, and many refused to vote for a federal budget unless Obamacare was defunded or the mandate that individuals get insurance was delayed. That stance led to the more than two-week shutdown of the federal government in October.

Opponents say that if not enough people — especially the young and healthy, who will help to balance out the costs of older people and those with preexisting conditions — sign up, Obamacare could be doomed. “At the current pace, it would take Illinois more than 14 years to reach its 2014 target,” Naomi Lopez-Bauman, director of health policy for the Illinois Policy Institute, said in a prepared statement. “This low level, whether attributed to website obstacles or lack of demand, is a cause for alarm for two reasons. First, if these enrollment trends continue, the exchange will almost certainly face an insurance death spiral, where older and sicker patients are far more motivated to enroll, driving up prices further. Second, the number of people losing their health insurance coverage in the individual and small group markets as a result of Obamacare could leave the state with a higher uninsured rate.”

 But Sebelius said today that there is no cause for alarm. She noted that HHS, state entities and community groups working to educate people about their options under Obamacare and encouraging them to get insured are “only a month into a sustained six-month enrollment and outreach effort.” Sebelius pointed to the enrollment pattern of the Massachusetts state exchange, upon which the federal concept is modeled. Under that state’s plan, many residents waited until later in the enrollment period to sign up. “I think what we saw in Massachusetts is that people visited the site multiple times before they made a decision.” She said that people want to take time to think over their choices, talk to their families and make sure that their doctors will be in the provider networks for their new plans. “We have every reason to expect more people will enroll.” Those who want their insurance to kick in by January 1 must sign up by December 15. The enrollment period ends on March 31. The uninsured face a potential fine after that point under the individual mandate. There are exemptions for religious objectors and those who cannot afford insurance.

Illinois’ exchange is run as partnership between the federal government and the state. Illinois officials echoed Sebelius’ take on the enrollment numbers. “We have consistently urged Illinois residents to take their time getting educated, rather than make an impulsive decision on something as important as health care for themselves and their families,” Jennifer Koehler, executive director of Get Covered Illinois (the state's exchange portal), said in a prepared statement. “When healthcare.gov is ready to handle more users, we expect to see more website traffic to Get Covered Illinois and significant growth in our enrollment numbers.”