By Andrew Thomason
Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Lawmakers agree the state needs to cut spending, but few are quick to rally behind Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s spending plan, presented to the General Assembly Feb. 22.
The governor’s plan would close state facilities in many districts — including Rockford’s Singer Mental Health Center — and cut Medicaid spending.
Quinn’s $33.9 budget relies on cutting Medicaid spending and saving $110 million annually by closing or consolidating 67 state facilities to generate a surplus of more than $160 million.
Lawmakers said Quinn’s proposed pillars are sturdy, but how he wants to construct them is cause for concern.
During his budget address to the General Assembly Feb. 22, Quinn called for the following:
• Increasing education funding;
• Closing or consolidating 67 state facilities;
• Trimming Medicaid spending by $2.7 billion; and
• Restructuring the state’s pension systems.
Quinn insisted that tackling Medicaid and state pensions must be done before the General Assembly leaves the state Capitol this year.
“This is not something you can blithely delay for another year,” Quinn said.
Quinn laid out a buffet of options for controlling Medicaid spending, including the following:
• Reducing the amount of money the state pays providers for treating patients;
• Changing the services Medicaid covers; and
• Revising eligibility requirements for Medicaid recipients.
Regarding the state’s ballooning pension costs, Quinn said only that something needs to be done and did not specify further.
“Everything is on the table,” he said.
State Rep. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, said she liked what she heard from Quinn, but it’s what she didn’t hear that concerned her.
“The devil is going to be in the details, and we didn’t hear a lot of details,” Tracy said.
Not everyone is thrilled about Medicaid cuts. Many health care providers say less money to perform the same services would be terminal to facilities.
“Medicaid needs reform — no question — but blanket cuts are not a viable solution,” said Adam Mesirow, spokesman for the Association of Safety-Net Hospitals, which represents hospitals that serve a large Medicaid population.
Mary Jane Worth, president of the Illinois Hospital Association, which lobbies on behalf of hospitals in the state, said less Medicaid spending could have a domino effect.
“If cuts are made to Medicaid, many hospitals will be forced to reduce or eliminate key services or lay off staff, and some hospitals may close,” Worth said. “When health care services are eliminated due to Medicaid cuts, those services are gone for everyone, not just Medicaid patients.”
Quinn said without his proposed cuts, Medicaid in Illinois could collapse, harming the people who truly need it.
State facility hit list
For some downstate lawmakers, the state facility hit list, not pension reforms or Medicaid cuts, are of great concern.
Democratic state Sen. John Sullivan’s hometown of Rushville is one of 24 communities where Quinn wants to close the local Illinois Department of Human Services office. Quinn proposed consolidating that office with one in a neighboring community. The majority of the facility closures and consolidations — 57 out of 67 — are downstate.
“To talk about increasing funding for education at the same time when you’re talking about closing numerous facilities and cutting services to some pretty vulnerable populations, that did not seem like a good balance,” Sullivan said.
Among the 67 facilities that would close permanently, putting more than 1,400 state workers on the unemployment rolls, state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, is most concerned about closing the Tamms Correctional Center in Tamms.
“I don’t know where this governor is coming from. You can’t close facilities like Tamms. What are you going to do with these people? These are the worst of the worst,” Forby said.
Quinn said his proposals may be hard to swallow for everyone, but they are necessary because of the Illinois’ precarious financial state.
“I’m here today to tell you the truth,” Quinn said. “This budget contains truths that may not be what you want to hear. But these are truths that you do need to know.”
More than a few lawmakers said at least Quinn delivered on his promise to deliver the truth, positive or otherwise.
State Rep. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, said: “I was appreciative of the reality. It’s painful and it’s awful, but it’s out there.”
Quinn and the Legislature have had a cantankerous relationship. The General Assembly passed Medicaid reforms last year that tightened residency and income verifications, but many lawmakers say Quinn is dragging his feet on implementing the changes.
And last year, the General Assembly all but ignored Quinn’s budget proposal, taking up the task of crafting a budget themselves.
This baggage makes many lawmakers skeptical of Quinn and their abilities to compromise or agree on how to achieve many of his proposals.
State Rep. Rich Morthland, R-Cordova, said, “He talked a lot about Medicaid but didn’t give us a whole lot of specifics about how to we’re going to get from point A to point B, except he’s going to keep us around all summer if we don’t do what he says.”
Quinn’s proposals, while bare, are the start of a much-needed conversation, said Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, a group that lobbies on behalf of businesses in the state.
Whitley said: “The kinds of actions that our General Assembly and governor should be taking relative to pension benefits and health care benefits are the exact same actions that were taken in the private sector about 20 years ago. Our state needs to wake up and recognize the reality is of what they can afford.”
Singer Mental Health Center
Singer Mental Health Center, 4402 N. Main St., Rockford, has a bed capacity of 76, a staff of 145 and an operating cost of $14 million. The center serves adults in need of mental health treatment.
Posted Feb. 23, 2012