Illinois Public Media News
(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.
They're not cures, but two novel drugs produced unprecedented gains in survival in separate studies of people with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, doctors reported Sunday.
In one study, an experimental drug showed so much benefit so quickly in people with advanced disease that those getting a comparison drug were allowed to switch after just a few months.
The drug, vemurafenib, targets a gene mutation found in about half of all melanomas. The drug is being developed by Genentech, part of Swiss-based Roche, and Plexxikon Inc., part of the Daiichi Sankyo Group of Japan.
The second study tested Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Yervoy, a just-approved medicine for newly diagnosed melanoma patients, and found it nearly doubled the number who survived at least three years.
"Melanoma has just seen a renaissance of new agents," and more are being tested, said Dr. Allen Lichter, chief executive of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
The new studies were presented Sunday at the oncology group's annual meeting in Chicago and published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.
"This is really an unprecedented time of celebration for our patients," said Dr. Lynn Schuchter, of the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center. The new drugs are not by themselves cures, but "the future is going to be to build upon the success" by testing combinations of these newer drugs, she said.
Melanoma is on the rise. There were 68,000 new cases and 8,700 deaths from it in the United States last year, the American Cancer Society estimates. Only two drugs had been approved to treat it, with limited effectiveness, until Yervoy, an immune-system therapy, won approval in March.
The experimental drug, vemurafenib, is aimed at a specific gene mutation, making it the first so-called targeted therapy for the disease. The drug got attention when a whopping 70 percent of those with the mutation responded to it in early safety testing.
The new study, led by Dr. Paul Chapman of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, was the key test of its safety and effectiveness. It involved 675 patients around the world with inoperable, advanced melanoma and the gene mutation. They received vemurafenib pills twice a day or infusions every three weeks of the chemotherapy drug dacarbazine.
After six months, 84 percent of people on vemurafenib were alive versus 64 percent of the others.
Less than 10 percent on the drug suffered serious side effects - mostly skin rashes, joint pain, fatigue, diarrhea and hair loss. About 18 percent of patients developed a less serious form of skin cancer. More than a third needed their dose adjusted because of side effects.
The study is continuing, and many remain on the drug, including one of Schuchter's patients: Brian Frantz, a 50-year-old former firefighter from Springfield, Va.
Within a week or two of starting on the drug in September, "we noticed an improvement" and shrinkage in his many tumors, he said. "It was just a miracle."
Schuchter said that's typical of how patients have responded to the drug.
"Within 72 hours, their symptoms improve, pain medicines can be reduced," she said.
The study is a landmark and the results are "very impressive" in people who historically have not fared very well, said Dr. April Salama, a Duke University melanoma specialist.
The study was sponsored by the drug's makers, and many of the researchers consult or work for them. The companies are seeking approval to sell the drug and a companion test for the gene mutation in the U.S. and Europe. A Genentech spokeswoman said the price has not yet been determined.
The other new drug, Yervoy, is not a chemotherapy but a treatment to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer. Dr. Jedd Wolchok of Memorial Sloan-Kettering led the first test of it in newly diagnosed melanoma patients.
About 502 of them received dacarbazine and half also got Yervoy. After one year, 47 percent of those on Yervoy were alive versus 36 percent of the others. At three years, survival was 21 percent with Yervoy versus 12 percent for chemotherapy alone.
Side effects included diarrhea, rash and fatigue. More than half on the new drug had major side effects versus one quarter of those on chemotherapy alone.
Bristol-Myers Squibb paid for the study and many researchers consult or work for the company. Treatment with Yervoy includes four infusions over three months and costs $30,000 per infusion.
New England Journal of Medicine: http://www.nejm.org
A Chicago-based scientist says he's grateful to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk for siding with legislation that backs stem cell research.
Kirk on Monday called for congressional action to codify an executive order on the research issued by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Dr. John Kessler directs a stem cell research institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He says Kirk is backing legislation that's "absolutely essential for the field'' because uncertainty over federal funding discourages young scientists from doing research on stem cells.
Kirk says stem cell research offers "the best promise'' to cure certain diseases. The Illinois Republican says, if senior Democratic senators choose not to move the stem cell legislation in this Congress, he will. He says court challenges to taxpayer-financed stem cell research make legislation necessary.
A survey on the greatest health needs in Champaign County has been broken down into four general areas.
The state requires the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District to complete a local assessment of needs plan every five years. After more than 11-hundred replies last year, priorities were identified as access to care (or paying for medical, mental and dental health), accidents (including DUI crashes and those in the home), obesity, and violence (including alcohol-related abuse and domestic violence.)
CUPHD Epidemiologist Awais Vaid says the county's current Community Health Plan was narrowed from 10 categories five years ago. He says public health is given no specific guidance on how to come up with the priorities.
"It's basically the community partners, the community leaders that get together and decide one what should be included," said Vaid. "But the last time we identified 10 of them, it became too much to address each of them, because each takes time and resources."
Vaid says community coalitions are being put together to address the four areas, each of them involving members of the public health district.
"The last time we finished the process, and thought as time goes by, some group will start addressing each one of these. It didn't happen," said Vaid. "So most of them were not addressed the way we were expecting to. But this time we do have specific groups that have a vested interest."
Yearly progress on the surveyed areas will be posted on the CUPHD's website.
President Obama's administration took its first stab Wednesday at reversing Indiana's controversial ban on funds to agencies offering abortion services, primarily Planned Parenthood.
Donald M. Berwick, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, sent a letter to Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration. Berwick said the law improperly bars Medicaid beneficiaries from receiving services from a qualified provider, as federal law requires. Indiana could face penalties if the law is not changed, he warned.
But Bryan Corbin, spokesman for the Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, said the state intends to fight for the law.
"We are reviewing the Center for Medicaid Services letter with our client, the Family and Social Services Administration to determine our client's options, but we will continue to defend the statute," he Corbin.
The Republican-led Indiana General Assembly approved the bill in late April. It was signed in early May by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, also a Republican, even though Daniels had sought a "truce" on social issues. The law bans $3 million the state receives from going to any agency that provides abortion services or to agencies that deal with Planned Parenthood.
The law also bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy unless there is a substantial threat to the woman's life or health.
At the time, it was thought that Daniels signed the legislation to appease conservatives as he contemplated a run for the Republican nomination for president, which he ultimately decided against. Daniels explained, however, that he supports the law because a majority of Hoosiers oppose abortion. He said women can obtain health care needs from providers other than Planned Parenthood.
Daniels said agencies that lost funding can have them restored if they cut ties to Planned Parenthood of Indiana. Planned Parenthood officials say 9,300 low income Hoosier women will or have lost coverage because of the new law.
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
The Quinn administration's decision to line up new health insurance providers for state employees is now facing a challenge from organized labor.
The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees has filed a grievance against the state over the decision to drop two longstanding insurance providers.
AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall says the providers who won the state contracts over Health Alliance and Humana don't cover many of the doctors that state employees have used for years.
"Our grievance seeks a remedy that the current contracts would be extended so -- at a minimum -- that all of those providers could be signed up on similar plans with the new networks, and if they can't be, that Health Alliance would continue to be a contractor for the coming fiscal year," Lindall said.
The state has given employees until June 17 to sign up with a new insurer - AFSCME is advising its 55,000 members to hold off making their benefit choice until right before the deadline.
Lindall charges that the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services hasn't given any evidence that workers will get the same coverage at the same cost as the current plans. He calls that a violation of AFSCME's contract.
The union is also exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos predicts they won't see much success.
"Losing bidders don't typically do that well in the courts. It's a procurement process. And we followed the law we followed it to a T," said Hamos. "That has now been affirmed. So, anybody can sue, there are a lot of lawyers in Illinois."
Heallth Alliance is exploring legal action of its own. Spokeswoman Jane Hayes the company is examining all options and trying to keep members in mind and what's best for them.
State lawmakers approved a bill that would restore Health Alliance's contract for two more years - but it's possible that governor Pat Quinn could veto the measure. State officials say the new contracts will save Illinois about $100 million over the next year.
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