Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting by Pam Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess)
The term "food desert' has gained traction in recent years as a name for areas with a shortage of full-service food stores. But it's not clear how big a role they play in the lives of people who struggle to get the food they need. As part of the series "Life on Route 150," Illinois Public Media's Jim Meadows visited the Piatt County town of Mansfield. The people there have enough to eat, but they have to travel to get it.
Prior to Tuesday's vote by the the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, University of Illinois employees were asking a number of questions with the Friday open enrollment deadline quickly approaching.
As things stand now, state workers and retirees still have until Friday to choose a health insurance plan. At one of the last outreach sessions on the Urbana campus, employees were being advised to choose the one they want, although they could still be defaulted into the Quality Care Health Plan option at the deadline.
One employee, Becky Heller, said her biggest concern is being allowed to change her mind if a better choice becomes available.
"They're not letting us know whether that's a guarantee or not," Heller said. "They're saying they think that they'll open enrollment again, and they think that they'll let us switch if things change, but they're not guaranteeing that. So we very well may be stuck with whatever we choose for an entire year."
Heller said she may have to consider an HMO plan in a nearby county and find a new doctor, but would still be paying lower premiums than what is in the Quality Care plan.
Employee Kathryn Smith said her concern is the state's backlog of bills, and the time it takes hospitals to be reimbursed.
"I don't know if any business in this country today that has its doors open if it's creditors don't pay them within a year," Smith said. "I'm a little concerned that our hospitals aren't going to survive this if we are left on this Quality Care Health Plan."
Brenda Butts is assistant director of University Payroll and Benefits at the U of I's Urbana campus. She said even if an employee chooses an option they ultimately cannot enroll in, Butts said she believes the state will benefit by simply seeing how many have opted for a particular plan, or 'voted' for it.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)
A Sangamon County judge's ruling last week threw health insurance enrollment for state and university employees and retirees into chaos, but people concerned about their health care options may see some reprieve.
A bipartisan legislative panel on Tuesday authorized the use of 90-day emergency health plans, which could include current insurers. That means those with Health Alliance, Humana and various Open Access Plans should be able to remain with those providers temporarily.
Still undecided, however, is which health care providers will be available for that period. That decision is up to Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos. She said all current providers will be welcome to the negotiations, which she said will start immediately and be finalized before Friday's open enrollment deadline.
That is the deadline for individuals to pick new medical insurance coverage. Janice Bonneville is in charge state employees' medical benefits. She said given the time crunch, she needs to be able to tell workers what to do.
"If we can make some additional adjustments and send information out to members through the group insurance representatives, through our website, through their unions to tell them that additional options are available we will do that," Bonneville said. "But right now the glass is half empty. I'm trying to get it half full."
It is unclear what happens when the three-month emergency health plans expire. They could be extended while the courts work through the issue, but there is no guarantee. Officials are considering an additional benefit enrollment period later this fall.
State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) sits on the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, which gave the green light for the 90-day contracts. Frerichs said the vote is a good solution for now, but he said he would like to see Governor Pat Quinn sign legislation that he sponsored to continue existing coverage for the next couple of years.
"I think this is a good short-term solution to a problem that was kind of created by the courts," Frerichs said. "Going forward, I'd like to see my bill signed, but I think it's been made fairly clear that the governor does not intend to sign that."
Frerichs urges state employees who are concerned about their health insurance to pick a plan by Friday, but to wait first to find out which providers will be available.
Health Alliance released a statement Tuesday, saying it will be an option for state employees as early as Wednesday:
"However, as of this writing, CMS has not agreed to any extension of the Benefit Choice Period. Therefore, if you want to stay with Health Alliance but you made another selection, you will have to act quickly. As soon as Health Alliance is available as an option, you'll have to make a switch back to Health Alliance. And that switch will have to be made before the June 17 deadline."
To get updated information about benefit choice options leading up to Friday's open enrollment deadline, visit benefitschoice.IL.gov
A state legislative commission could vote Tuesday afternoon on a proposal to allow emergency contracts to be drawn up to provide short-term health care plans for state employees.
The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability will meet in Chicago, and the short-term contracts are on the agenda. The measure would authorize the use of 90-day health plan contracts based on current programs that expire June 30th.
A Sangamon County judge's order on Friday, June 10, put a stay on two open access plans on the menu of new health insurance plans for state workers. The state Department of Healthcare and Family Services is appealing the stay, which continues while a judge considers lawsuits filed by Health Alliance and Humana.
Without the Open Access Plans plans --- or any emergency replacements --- state workers will have to choose between the state's more expensive Quality Care health plan, and two HMO plans that serve just 38 counties: Boone, Christian, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Fulton, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, Logan, Macoupin, Madison, Marshall, McHenry, Menard, Monroe, Morgan, Ogle, Peoria, Randolph, Saint Clair, Sangamon, Tazewell, Will, Winnebago and Woodford.
Spokesperson Alka Nayyar of the state Department of Central Management Services said state workers have until the end of the business day on Friday, June 17 to choose new health plans. But because of the judge's stay, the options are limited.
"So currently, until such time as the trial court's order is reversed or superseded --- or emergency contracts can be completed, the only enrollment options for members are HMO Illinois, Blue Advantage HMO, or the Quality Care health plan, which is done through CIGNA," Nayyar said.
CoGFA member and State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said the contracts on the commission agenda could create more temporary health contract options.
"This anticipated vote --- at this point we don't know exactly what's going to happen --- but this anticipated vote would give the department the flexibility to go out and negotiate 90-day emergency healthcare contracts, and it would mostly likely be with current health care providers," Frerichs said.
But State Senator Jeff Schoenberg (D-Chicago), who is the commission's co-chairman, said the panel may not be a necessary gatekeeper for that decision either.
"The director has the authority to issue emergency 90-day contracts," Schoenberg said.
That would be Director of Healthcare and Familiy Services Julie Hamos, who will be at the meeting to present those options and elicit input from commission members.
If nothing changes in the next few days, state employees and retirees can expect far fewer choices when picking out a new health plan.
Whatever the options, the University of Illinois is telling its employees to choose a health care plan by Friday, June 17th. The U of I says employees could still choose one of the open access plans --- in the hopes that new court action will make them available before the week is over. However, if the plans remain unavailable, the university says those employees would automatically be put under the Quality Care Plan.
State officials say workers should check the CMS Benefits Choice website frequently for updates, under "State Employee Insurance and Benefit Programs.
(UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect new info from the University of Illinois, the Department of Central Management Services and the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability).
State employees in Illinois are left with uncertain choices for their health insurance plan.
A judge's order on Friday put a stay on two open access plans on the menu of new health insurance plans for state workers. The state Department of Healthcare and Family Services is appealing the stay, which was sought by Health Alliance and Humana, two health care companies whose plans were rejected. But in the meantime, Alka Nayyar of the state Department of Central Management Services says employees have until the end of business this Friday to choose among the plans that remain.
"Currently, until such time as the trial court's order is reversed or superseded --- or emergency contracts can be completed --- the only enrollment options for members are HMO Illinois, Blue Advantage HMO, or the Quality Care health plan, which is done through CIGNA," Nayyar said.
The two HMO plans are only available in 38 Illinois counties. According to Nayyar, those counties are: Boone, Christian, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Fulton, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, Logan, Macoupin, Madison, Marshall, McHenry, Menard, Monroe, Morgan, Ogle, Peoria, Randolph, Saint Clair, Sangamon, Tazewell, Will, Winnebago and Woodford.
This list is substantially different from one released by CMS a few weeks ago. For instance, Macon and DeWitt Counties, which were previously listed as being covered by the two new HMO plans, are not on the latest list.
The other plan, Quality Care is more expensive--it's the one workers get automatically if they don't make a choice this week.
A notice sent out by the University of Illinois says employees may still choose the PersonalCare or HealthLink open access plans, if they live in a county where the plans are available. But the U of I's Human Resources office says they will only receive the coverage if a change is made by the state to un-block those plans. Otherwise, those employees will automatically be placed in the Quality Care plan.
An emergency contract could be another option. If such a plan is confirmed, it would be a short-term health care plan--perhaps for 90 days--that would be added to the health plan menu this week. The legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability will discuss emergency health insurance contracts at its meeting Tuesday at 12 PM in Chicago.
But whatever the options, the University of Illinois is telling its employees to choose a health care plan by Friday, June 17th.
State officials says workers should check the CMS Benefits Choice website frequently for updates, under "State Employee Insurance and Benefit Programs.
(Last Updated at Monday, June 13 at 9:43 AM)
A Sangamon County Judge has stalled the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services' attempt to switch thousands of HMO plans in Central Illinois.
In response to a push by the state to drop Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana as options for public and university employees, Judge Brian Otwell issued a temporary stay in any further action in awarding or signing the self-insurance, or Open Access Plan contracts.
State officials say the new contracts will save Illinois about $100 million over the next year. Governor Pat Quinn's administration has argued these so-called "open access plans" are cheaper, because the state's the ultimate insurer.
The ruling means that employees can continue enrolling in HMO plans, just not the popular downstate plans provided by Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana.
The companies filed a lawsuit in protest.
"It will be up to HFS to decide on the actions to take based on the judge's ruling," Health Alliance CEO Jeff Ingrum said in a statement. "We are relieved the judge has stopped the process while the issues are examined by the court."
Judge Otwell's ruling comes just a week before the annual open enrollment period expires, a time when workers can pick new plans. The ruling throws that process into havoc as employees have few choices beyond an HMO option. Otwell calls the timing of his decision, "highly regrettable" but unavoidable.
Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said the state intends to appeal Friday's ruling. He claims nothing in the ruling, "calls into question the fairness of the procurement process."
"Today's decision has created uncertainty for state employees and other members of the state group insurance program who are currently in the process of making decisions on their health care plan for the new fiscal year that starts July 1," Claffey said. "We want group insurance plan members to know that we will act promptly and explore all the options to ensure that they have managed care coverage."
Meanwhile, another state agency, the Department of Central Management Services, released a statement on its website Sunday saying that for now, state employees can only choose from the two Blue Cross HMO plans --- covering only 38 counties, and the state's more expensive Quality Care plan. CMS said that could change if emergency healthcare contracts can be signed, or if Judge Otwell takes further action in the case.
For updates, workers are instructed to check the website benefitschoice.il.gov
Excavation work continues at the site that once housed a manufactured gas plant in Champaign.
Ameren Illinois is working on the corner of 5th and Hill Streets to clear soil that is suspected of having traces of the pollutant coal tar. Most of the work to remove the soil has taken place underneath a large protective tent, but on Thursday workers dug about three feet of dirt outside of the tent.
That sparked concerns from the health care advocacy group, Champaign County Health Care Consumers. The group said a monitoring device that checks for dangerous chemicals went off, raising the possibility that nearby communities might be at risk.
"The vapors and the dust that comes up from this type of excavation are highly toxic and this is a highly irresponsible activity to do," the group's executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, said.
But Ameren spokesperson Leigh Morris dismissed that claim, saying no air monitoring equipment recorded anything that would have raised health or safety concerns. Morris said both Ameren and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency were checking the excavation area Thursday with air monitoring equipment, which did not identify any red flags.
"There was never any type of a health concern," Morris explained. "There was some dust. The dust was caused from gravel. We did receive one complaint about that, and we watered the gravel down to end the dust problem."
The excavation happened on the edge of a gate, near two buildings used by the Center for Women in Transition. Site supervisor Jacob Blanton said there was no way the tent could have been moved with nearby power lines and a narrow alley in the way.
Morris said some additional digging outside of the protective tent will likely be performed in July.
Back in April, Champaign agreed to plug a pipe suspected of having dangerous chemicals near the Boneyard Creek, which extends to the site where the gas plant once stood. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has said there is no evidence to suggest coal tar has made its way from the plant into the pipeline.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
An energy program that helps offset the cost of air conditioning bills for low-income Illinois residents is being scaled back this summer.
Because of possible federal funding cuts, the state is telling agencies that administer the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program not to expect any federal aid.
LIHEAP provides utility bill aid to households with incomes of up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
"Though the reduction in federal funding for LIHEAP is unfortunate, the state's decision is necessary to help heat homes across Illinois next winter, which is the program's top priority," said Mike Claffey, a spokesperson for Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Claffey said Illinois could face a 60 percent reduction in federal funding for the program for fiscal year 2012, from $246 million to $113 million.
Cameron Moore, the CEO of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, said the lack of funding means hundreds to thousands of area residents may struggle to cool their homes this summer.
"You know, it's one of those things that's going to affect a lot of people, and I certainly think some of them negatively," Moore said. "At this point, we're hoping other agencies will work together to hopefully at a minimum provide fans for folks, maybe cooling centers. There are sort of some common responses to this kind of need that you see in other communities."
If the humidity becomes dangerous, Governor Pat Quinn could declare a state of emergency, prompting federal and state agencies to provide cooling centers.
The cities of Danville and Decatur have more money to hunt down properties that may have hazardous chemicals sitting underneath them. The land may have once held gas stations, dry cleaners or manufacturers.
Danville will use a $400,000 federal grant announced Monday to investigate past records and eventually test a few of the sites that may pose the most problems to health or redevelopment. Decatur has received an identical grant.
Danville planning and zoning manager Chris Milliken says there may be as many as 300 properties that have some sort of underground contamination. So, he says the city will have to decide which so-called brownfields receive tests. "That includes sites around Danville High School and some other prominent locations," Milliken said. "The main factor engaging the importance of sites we want to pursue is going to be visibility, and then also the potential for redevelopment -- for instance, sites that are along North Vermilion or other developable corridors already."
Milliken expects it will take about a year to identify new sites and conduct testing on about 20 to 40 of them. Danville officials can use those test results to plan cleanups when money becomes available -- those cleanups could range from removing buildings to removing the soil underneath.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The legal battle to restore funding to Planned Parenthood of Indiana continued in an Indianapolis federal courtroom Monday morning.
Lawyers for Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union are seeking an injunction to restore $3 million in federal Medicaid funding.
A recently enacted Indiana law prevents money going to agencies that perform abortion, including Planned Parenthood. The law is the first of its kind in the nation, approved by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels last month. Daniels contends women in Indiana have other options in seeking medical care other than Planned Parenthood. The law also bans abortions after the twentieth week of pregnancy, unless there is a substantial threat to the woman's life or health.
Planned Parenthood of Indiana says it will close seven of its 28 Indiana health centers if it doesn't get a federal injunction blocking a new state law that cuts off much of its public funding.Indiana.
Betty Cockrum, the president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana, said in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis that her organization would close clinics in Bedford, Hammond, Michigan City, New Albany, Terre Haute and two in Indianapolis.
Cockrum said the seven clinics served nearly 21,000 patients last year. Planned Parenthood also would lay off 24 employees. She said $96,000 in donations to keep serving Medicaid patients will run out June 20.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said the state shouldn't be locked in a court battle with Planned Parenthood.
"The state's position is that any dispute over Indiana's Medicaid provider qualifications really belong between the federal government and the state of Indiana," Zoeller said following the hearing. "My office stands ready to defend Indiana's statute in the proper forum with the proper party."
U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt said she will rule on Planned Parenthood's injunction request by the end of the month.
The head of the federal Medicaid program, Donald Berwick, said last week that Indiana's law is illegal and, if it is not changed, the state could face penalties.
Planned Parenthood provides general health care services to 9,300 Medicaid patients in 28 centers around the state.
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