Illinois Public Media News
A health care advocacy group is renewing its call on the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to investigate an underground pipeline in Champaign's Fifth and Hill neighborhood.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers held a news conference Tuesday in the neighborhood, and cited a recent report that identified chemical waste in the pipeline know as "coal tar" as petroleum-based. The group's executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, said the toxins are likely linked to a gas manufacturing plant that had been in the area from 1887 until 1953.
"This is like a sleeping giant underground," she said. "It's highly toxic. One of the problems with the material that we found is that these contaminants can also leach off and can spread and move through the groundwater and through the soil."
But Eleanor Blackmon, who's an assistant engineer in the city of Champaign, said the pipe has been dry every time it has been inspected.
"We inspected it after rains from the time that (Champaign County Health Care Consumers) expressed their concerns about it," Blackmon said. "We never saw any outflow from the pipe. The dirt inside the pipe was always dry."
Furthermore, Blackmon said there is no way to connect the pipeline to the old manufactured gas plant.
The city agreed this year to plug the pipe facing Boneyard Creek after Champaign County Health Consumers filed a notice of intent to sue the city over cleaning it up.
The Illinois EPA said it is already looked at the site, and that any toxins that might be there are so far underground that they don't pose a health risk to people living in the area.
"We have done an investigation and this was our finding that no one was at risk,' Illinois EPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson said. "Secondarily, even if it were connected to the site, our primary concern would be is someone at risk? And the answer here is 'No.
The manager of the Champaign County Nursing Home says it's exploring the idea of offering more private-pay rooms for single patients to boost revenue.
Mike Scavatto told the Champaign County Board Thursday night that a drop in Medicare revenue has dealt what he calls a 'significant blow.' And he says nursing homes everywhere are seeing a delay in state Medicaid reimbursements. Republican and Nursing Home Board of Directors member Alan Nudo says he suggested the single room idea as a revenue stream.
"I think the board kind of said 'let's just go forward with it,' he said. "We don't have to have a flat-screen TV in there or cable hook-up at this stage. Let's just try to put in single rooms. And that still gives us plenty of room for Medicare and Medicaid beds."
Nudo suggests setting up just over 20 private rooms could bring in an extra $100-to 200-thousand. Scavatto says more amenities could be added when the nursing home can afford them.
As another long-term upgrade, the county nursing home wants to add renal dialysis equipment. Scavatto says not many homes offer it, and that could serve as a census builder, allowing residents to receive care in the home instead of forcing them to ride a bus to a medical center.
Activists who lost their fight to preserve Oak Forest Hospital now say they're going to focus on holding Cook County to its commitments.
A state board Tuesday approved the county's plan to close the hospital and replace it with a regional outpatient center. Patients, unions and community activists managed to stave off the closure twice before. But at Tuesday's meeting of the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, the county won the day.
Organizers say now the task is to make Cook County honor its pledge not to abandon south suburbanites.
"Let us take those concerns and be very vigilant," said William McNary of Citizen Action Illinois, calling the vote expected but disappointing. "Don't give up today. Because those health care needs are still going to continue beyond what they do here."
McNary sits on an advisory board set up by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. He vowed to make sure the outpatient center offers the best possible care and to press neighboring hospitals to follow through on their promise to absorb Oak Forest patients.
Many of the opponents sat through the four-hour meeting holding protest signs, and some even cried "genocide" as the vote was unfolding.
President Preckwinkle said she understands the anxiety, but condemns the rhetoric.
"To suggest the people on the independent governing board or the health care professionals are motivated by genocidal impulses is demeaning and extremely unfortunate," Preckwinkle said after the vote.
The county made several concessions to opponents, including agreeing to run an immediate care facility on the site around the clock. Ultimately, new appointments to a state regulatory board gave Cook County the votes it lacked in two previous efforts to pass the plan.
County officials say they plan to discontinue hospital operations by the end of August and immediately begin phasing in the clinic services.
Local health care advocates hope a plan to create Illinois' largest Catholic hospital system results in greater financial assistance for the low-income.
There was little opposition in a state hearing in Urbana Wednesday, and another held the same day in Danville, over the planned merger between Provena hospitals and Chicago-based Resurrection Health Care.
Those who backed the move during Urbana's 90-minute hearing included Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance, and members of Champaign County Health Care Consumers. The group's executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, said its partnership with Provena Covenant Medical Center has helped low-income patients with medical expenses, and that a new charity care program would emerge, based on the best of both hospital systems, if the merger is approved.
But John Hilty of Urbana was concerned that a larger hospital system makes it less responsive to a community's needs.
"It seems to me that smaller organizations are easier to manage and tend to be more responsive to local communities, rather than large organizations, where the decision making is less personal and less attuned to a particular city or location," he said.
Hilty also said a larger hospital system doesn't necessarily result in less costly medical bills.
Provena Covenant Medical Center lost its property tax exemption in 2004, when the Illinois Department of Revenue ruled the hospital didn't provide enough charity care. The President and CEO of its hospitals in Urbana and Danville, Michael Brown, said Provena Covenant has proved many times since then that the hospital is a community partner. He said the level of charity care should improve with the merger. Brown said the move will produce savings from controlling purchasing prices to office functions.
"When you look at the tsunami that's in front of us as being able to take care of people with the 10,000 people a day eligible to join the Medicare ranks," he said. "There are not enough people in the following two generations to pay for that. So we have to do this a different way. And being able to merge these together and to leverage the resources gives us an opportunity to at least meet that need."
The proposed merger also got letters of endorsement from Champaign State Senator Mike Frerichs and Champaign Mayor Don Gerard.
The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board will rule on the merger in October.
The Illinois Department of Revenue has denied property tax exemptions to hospitals in Decatur, Chicago, and Naperville in a move that signals the state's plans to get tough on nonprofit hospitals that operate more like businesses than charities.
At stake are millions of dollars in tax revenue that the hospitals could contribute to cities, parks and schools.
Revenue Department officials tell The Associated Press that the hospitals were informed today. The three are: Decatur Memorial Hospital in Decatur, Northwestern Memorial's Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago, and Edward Hospital in Naperville.
The hospitals can ask an administrative law judge to review the decisions.
Illinois' Supreme Court ruled last year that Urbana-based Provena Covenant Medical Center wasn't doing enough free or discounted treatment of the poor to qualify for a tax exemption.
A legislative panel has voted 8-1 to authorize the state to negotiate health insurance contract extensions through the end of June 2012.
All vendors providing health insurance coverage for state workers, including Urbana-based Health Alliance, will be able to negotiate nine-month extensions following Tuesday's decision by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA). State Senator and COGFA member Mike Frerichs said the extension should provide relief for a lot of people.
"I think for now the legislature has done its part," Frerichs said. "It's now up to the health insurance providers, and the (Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services) to work out the terms of the deal."
Orland Park House Democrat Kevin McCarthy cast the only dissenting vote.
The state health contracts have been operating for the last few months under a 90-day extension that is due to expire at the end of September. A state appellate court recently upheld a Sangamon County judge's ruling, preventing the state from moving ahead with new health contracts for state employees and retirees. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's administration has argued the so-called 'open access' plans will save the state about $100 million a year.
"We are very happy to been given the opportunity to negotiate a longer-term contract to continue serving state workers and their families," Health Alliance CEO Jeff Ingrum said in a statement. "Every day we receive calls from our state members wanting to know if they'll be able to stay with Health Alliance."
But insurers may not get a rate increase from the state over what they're getting currently. In addressing the panel Tuesday, Ingrum compared his provider's rates with that of another provider.
"We are looking at the rate increase and just seeing in this environment to extend a rate from FY 11 to a full year," he said. "If that would be the ultimate terms, it would be a bit unreasonable given the fact that Blue Cross (Blue Shield) got an increase."
Print reports indicate Ingrum is seeking a rate hike of around 5-percent. A company spokeswoman, Jane Hayes, said she understands the state's needs to save money by dropping Health Alliance. However, she said she has a great deal of confidence that Health Alliance will be able to reach a deal with the state.
State Senator Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) praised the vote by COGFA.
"Finally, thousands of central Illinoisans can breathe a sigh of relief," Cultra said in a statement. "We must fix the current process now, so we are not sitting here next May without a permanent solution in place for the 100,000 state workers and retirees who have faced this uncertainty since this process began."
The state is scheduled to argue before a Sangamon County judge later this week to argue whether COGFA has the authority to extend the current health insurance contract. However, Sen. Frerichs said Gov. Quinn's office recently filed a motion to dismiss that case.
A convicted influence peddler remains on track to be sentenced weeks after his one-time benefactor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Prosecutors said at a status hearing Tuesday that they want to stick with an Oct. 21 sentencing date for Tony Rezko.
The government has portrayed Rezko as the ultimate insider who pulled strings in Blagojevich's administration.
A jury convicted Rezko in 2008 of squeezing kickbacks from businessmen eager to land state contracts.
The 56-year-old appeared at Tuesday's hearing in jail clothes and chains binding his ankles. He smiled weakly and waived at relatives on courtroom benches.
Jurors convicted Blagojevich for corruption in June. His sentencing date is Oct. 6.
Rezko's sentencing was repeatedly delayed to leave the possibility he could testify at Blagojevich's trial. But the government never called him.
The students and employees of Millikin University won't have to go far to get clinical care.
For the last few years, the Millikin Wellness Center has provided care only to undergraduate students. However, now Millikin employees and all other students can use the center because of a contractual agreement between the university and Decatur Memorial Hospital. The hospital will expand services at the clinic by providing a full-time nurse practitioner, who will handle much of the extra case load.
"What we found is by using a partner we could do it at the same cost, but expand the services," Millikin's Vice President for Enrollment, Richard Dunsworth, said.
Approximately 1,500 students visited the clinic last year and it's expected that roughly 2,000 people will come to the expanded center, according to Dunsworth. He said he hopes the clinic can eventually turn into a working laboratory for Millikin's School of Nursing.
"With a full-time nurse practitioner there, that will allow us to expand it as a possible clinical site for undergraduate nurses, as well as our graduate nurses," Dunsworth said. "So, our nursing faculty is quite excited to see what the options might be."
Dunsworth said the clinic will also have an office manager on staff, who will be able to look up a patient's insurance information, and transfer medical information to nearby health care offices.
The Millikin Wellness Center, which is located at 150 South Fairview Ave in Decatur, offers a range of services, including medicine management, pregnancy tests, and blood pressure screenings.
Gov. Mitch Daniels says support is growing for a statewide ban on smoking in public places and it has a chance to pass next year.
The Evansville Courier & Press reports Daniels says he wants to see the percentage of adult Hoosiers who smoke drop to 20 percent by the end of his term. A recent report put the state's smoking rate at a historic low of 21.1 percent.
A bill that would have banned smoking in public places statewide failed to pass last session after it was loaded up with exemptions.
Proponents of a statewide smoking ban say it improve Hoosiers' health and the state's economy. Opponents say the marketplace should determine which restaurants or other retailers are smoke-free and which allow people to smoke.
The city of Chicago could be near the end of a five-year legal battle for control of a former industrial parcel with potential to help form a 24-acre park. If an eminent-domain settlement holds up, the space could be an asset for a Mexican-American area of the Southwest Side.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sanjay T. Tailor this week signed off on the deal, under which the city will pay $7.5 million for 19 acres owned by 2600 Sacramento Corp.
The money will go to the Cook County Treasurer's Office and remain there as the company's owner, Joanne Urso, tries to settle with her lender, Texas-based United Central Bank, which last year filed a federal suit to foreclose on the property.
"I don't get a penny," Urso said Friday afternoon.
Urso's property would combine with a 5-acre plot the city already controls.
Activists in the Little Village neighborhood hailed the settlement.
"We have not seen any park development in over 75 years," said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
Wasserman's group has been pushing for the land to become a park for five years. She said the deal could inspire residents of other neighborhoods.
"Regardless of language and regardless of immigration status, as long as there is determination in these communities, we can continue to get the things that we need," she said.
The park concept has the backing of the local 12th Ward alderman, George Cárdenas.
The land was once the site of an asphalt and tar manufacturing facility. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the plant operated from about 1918 to 1982. The agency eventually declared the land a Superfund site. The contamination included cancer-linked chemicals that turned up in nearby homes and yards. An EPA statement says Honeywell International Inc. finished a site cleanup last year.
The city filed its eminent-domain suit in 2006. Reaching an agreement became more complicated last year, when the foreclosure proceedings began.
The payment, due September 7, will consist of $6 million from the Chicago Park District and more than $1.5 million from city general-obligation bonds, according to Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The time-frame for turning the land into a park is not clear. Ownership will transfer to Chicago upon payment, but the city is not specifying a date for transferring the acreage to the Park District. Hoyle said that could possibly happen later this year.
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