Illinois Public Media News
Listen at 10:06 am on Tuesday to WILL-AM 580's "Focus" for a call-in program with area health officials.
About one in 10 restaurants in Champaign County failed a health inspection from April 2007 through April 2011, according to a review of inspection records by CU-CitizenAccess.org.
But customers have no easy way of knowing just how sanitary the places at which they eat really are.
Take, for example, Geovanti's Bar & Grill, which failed public health inspections five times from September 2008 through February of this year.
But no one who eats there would ever know, unless they requested copies of the Campustown restaurant's inspection reports from the local public health district.
That's because - unlike many other counties and cities in central Illinois and across the country - the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District currently doesn't publicize the results of its restaurant inspections in any form. Not online, not on placards at restaurants and not in local newspapers.
This means the public has no way way of knowing about health-code violations, such as the live and dead cockroaches found during a November 2009 inspection at Geovanti's.
Owner Anthony Donato said the restaurant works closely with the district to make sure it meets health codes. Geovanti's recently had a voluntary health inspection and passed with flying colors, he said.
Julie Pryde, the district's public health administrator, said the fact that a restaurant is open for business shows eating there is safe.
"If you go into a restaurant and it's open, we've been in there, and they've passed," Pryde said. "And there are times where you'll go to a restaurant, and it will not be open. It may not say, 'Closed by the health department' on the front door, but if it's not open, that's because there's an immediate health risk."
Pryde and other public health officials have long said they want to make information about inspections of the county's more than 1,000 eating establishments more available to the public. They believe providing diners with access to complete restaurant inspection reports will give them the information they need to make the best decisions for their health.
But, after years of talk, they still have not done so.
Since getting new software to manage inspection reports in 2007, they have spoken about plans for a website that would allow consumers to look up the records online.
In 2008, environmental health director Jim Roberts said he hoped to have the site up the following year.
This spring, he said they were shooting for September. In late August, he revised the time line once again.
"I would hope by January 2012," Roberts said.
He said there are several reasons for the delays.
"First, we had to make sure the system was working as we wanted it to," Roberts said. "The second thing is that I don't have a project manager to do this, so I do this as time permits me to do so."
Meanwhile, since 2003, neighboring Vermilion County has taken the low-tech route of requiring restaurant owners to post letter grades from their most recent inspections in their establishments alongside their health permits.
Douglas Toole is the environmental health director in Vermilion County.
"It's a lot about informing the public," Toole said. "When they go into a restaurant, the public can see the dining area, certainly, and they can see what the restrooms look like and they can see, depending on the place, a small amount of the food-preparation or food-storage area. But a lot of it takes place behind the scenes."
While Vermilion County officials see this as a way of providing the public with information they're entitled to see under the state's Freedom of Information Act, Champaign-Urbana's Julie Pryde see the letter grades differently.
"It's completely worthless," Pryde said.
She said when people see a letter grade, they don't bother to find out what went into earning that grade.
"If you only are looking at one thing, A, I think it will give people a false sense of security, and, B, it might negatively impact a restaurant's business when there's no point in it," Pryde said."Give them all the information or no information at all."
Illinois law doesn't require health departments to publish inspection results online or in hardcopy. But Vermillion isn't the only area county the takes the initiative to make its scores public.
McLean, Macon and Sangamon counties all post inspections scores on their websites.
Manny Martinez is executive chef of Destihl Restaurant and Brew Works, which has locations in Champaign and Normal. Inspection scores for the Normal restaurant are posted on the McLean County Health Department website.
The scores can be deceiving because they don't tell customers whether a restaurant lost points for major violations or for several minor violations that might have little to do with sanitation, Martinez said.
But overall, he doesn't mind the information being available to the public.
"For a restaurant, it doesn't really matter to us, as long as we know we're doing a good job, and we get inspected and we're doing a great job," he said.
How to Obtain a Restaurant Inspection Report
The public can obtain copies inspection reports for specific restaurants by calling the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District's Environmental Health Division at (217) 373-7900, emailing email@example.com or visiting the district's offices at 201 W. Kenyon Road, Champaign.
Depending on the number of reports being sought, you may be asked to file a Freedom of Information request with one of the district's Freedom of Information officers:
Freedom of Information Officer
Address: 201 W. Kenyon Road
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 531-4257
Fax: (217) 531-4343
Deputy Freedom of Information Officer
Address: 201 W. Kenyon Road
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 531-2905
Fax: (217) 373-7905
Deputy Freedom of Information Officer
Address: 201 W. Kenyon Road Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 531-4265
Fax: (217) 531-4343
About one in 10 restaurants in Champaign County failed a health inspection from April 2007 through April 2011, according to a review of inspection records by CU-CitizenAccess.org. But customers have no easy way of knowing just how sanitary the places at which they eat really are. Dan Petrella reports.
(With additional reporting by University of Illinois journalism alumna Jennifer Wheeler, CU-CitizenAccess reporter Pam Dempsey and UI journalism alumnus Steve Contorno)
The head of Champaign-based Community Elements says she's looking for a more 'holistic' approach to behavioral health, and that could include a possible detox program of its own for drug addicts.
Urbana's Prairie Center Health Systems closed its detox program on Thursday, after state cuts of $450,000. Community Elements CEO Sheila Ferguson Ferguson admits state funding is thin. But she said there are exceptions, including Community Elements' Respite Crisis Center, which is performing better and could receive additional state support.
"We're really giving some thought to whether or not we can serve some people with dual diagnosis that need detox," Ferguson said. "Because we hate to leave the community without anything. So, we're kind of brainstorming at this point to see if there's something that we can still partner with Prairie Center because they have some outpatient services."
Ferguson also said it is possible Community Elements could partner with local hospitals to make sure some sort of detox program continues in the area. She said she was disappointed with the decision by Prairie Center Health Systems to end talks about a possible merger. That agency's CEO, Bruce Suardini, said it wasn't feasible now, given state funding mechanisms. Ferguson said such a move is needed given the condition of state funding.
"Become more integrated, and offer mental health, substance abuse, and primary care,'" she said. "For me, mental health and substance abuse are really primary care issues that need to be addressed through physician support as well as ancillary services, like outpatient therapy counseling."
She said she also disagrees with Suardini's comments about merger negotiations, saying a number of mental health and substance abuse agencies have now chosen to join forces.
An Urbana agency that treats victims of drug and alcohol abuse has again lost funding for its detox program, and this time it may be for good.
Prairie Center Health Systems CEO Bruce Suardini said it is doubtful the $450,000 will be restored by lawmakers this fall. In September of 2008, the program shut down for six months before funds were reinstated.
Suardini said the detox program still sees about 750 people per year, and after cutting off referrals Thursday night, he said more addicts won't get the appropriate treatment.
"We watch the clients carefully because it's life-threatening," he said. "So a lot of people who will now probably end up in an ER room will get treated for the day and released. And they really don't have a chance to look at the addiction and get into a long-term care kind of way to combat that addiction."
Cuts to those programs statewide equal 28-million dollars. Suardini says while a number of area legislators would back a supplemental bill to restore that money this fall, it would require 3/5ths majority in each chamber.
"The chances of that happening, and total money being restored in the state of Illinois - I'm just more pessimistic about that because of the volume of things that are on the (General) Assembly's plate," he said. "So I don't see that coming back."
But Suardini said other programs for residential care and outpatient clinics, including one in Danville, will continue to operate. But he said reduced staffing levels means clients will have to be put on a waiting list.
Meanwhile, Suardini said Prairie Center has ended talks with Community Elements in Champaign (formerly the Mental Health Center of Champaign County) about a potential merger. He said state funding mechanisms forced clients to use services separately, and a merger wasn't feasible at this time.
Community Elements CEO Sheila Ferguson says the decision was solely Prairie Center's, and was disappointed the two sides couldn't work something out.
A physician from McLean County says his career away from politics should serve as an advantage as he pursues a seat in the Illinois Senate.
Republican Tom Pliura of Le Roy is running in the re-drawn 51st district, consisting of mostly rural towns in ten east central Illinois counties. He will face current state representative Chapin Rose in the primary.
Pluira said having real world experience as both an emergency room doctor and a lawyer will help hold elected officials accountable. He said his campaign won't be about personal attacks, but it will upset the status quo.
"I am going to challenge some long-standing, long held, positions by both sides, and inevitably, that will probably invoke a defensive posture on both sides of the aisle," Pluira said. "I'm not afraid to do that."
A doctor for 25 years, Pliura says he's seen many patients lately carrying cards for both Blue Cross-Blue Shield as well as Medicaid, but only the latter is billed. He says that's putting an unfair burden on the Medicaid rolls.
"There's no ability for the state to check that," said Pliura. "To see if that individual who now qualifies for Medicaid because the state has loosened up and basically tripled the rolls. The state's now paying a bill when in fact Blue Cross Blue Shield got the premium for that insurance policy. We're going to stop that."
Pluira said Illinois needs to rein in spending rather than raise taxes to solve the budget crisis. The emergency room physician also says he'll push to make the state friendlier to small businesses, as well as for term limits in the legislature. Pliura has never run for public office, but if elected, he said he will serve no more than two terms.
Health Alliance Agrees on Contract Extension
Health Alliance has approved nine-month contract extensions for state workers and employees.
The head of Illinois' child welfare agency is leaving after five years in that role.
Having served as Director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services since 2006, Erwin McEwen released a statement saying he's ready for the next challenge.
It has been a tumultuous summer for the agency. DCFS has been involved in a high profile court fight with Catholic Charities after that group refused to recognize couples in civil unions when it comes to adoptions and foster care placements. However, DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said that case had nothing to do with the Director's decision to leave.
"His decision is completely unrelated to the civil unions controversy or any other recent events," Marlowe said.
Marlowe said among McEwen's accomplishments include an increased capacity to serve more families on a voluntary basis, rather than waiting for the legal system to intervene.
DCFS now serves more families on a voluntary basis than on a court ordered one.
McEwen has not announced what he will be doing next. His resignation is effective Sept.30.
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.
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