Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - February 09, 2011

State Farm Retirees Losing Some Medical Coverage

State Farm Insurance Cos. will stop providing supplemental medical coverage for its Medicare-eligible retirees next year in a cost-cutting move.

The Bloomington-based company says it will instead help them find supplemental Medicare coverage and provide them with $200 a month to help. It wasn't immediately clear how many of the company's 28,700 retirees the move will affect.

State Farm also will make changes in the availability of retirement health care for current and future employees. People hired after this year, for instance, will have to pay for all of their own retirement medical insurance.

State Farm spokesman Phil Supple told The Pantagraph newspaper in Bloomington that growing medical claims have driven up the company's health care costs.

Many companies have announced similar changes in recent years.

Categories: Economics, Health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - February 07, 2011

Experts Say New Findings Prove Contaminants Remain in Neighborhood of Old Gas Plant

Further tests from two environmental experts confirm that contaminants remain in the soil near the site of a former manufactured gas plant in Champaign.

Residents of the 5th and Hill neighborhood say evidence uncovered Monday from an old pipeline at Boneyard Creek proves that Ameren has failed to properly address the remnants of the site. The residents say if the city repealed its Groundwater Restriction Ordinance, it would force Illinois' EPA to require the utility company to do the necessary groundwater extraction. Environmental investigator Bob Bowcock said when he told the agency about the pipeline, the EPA chose to ignore it.

"They had conducted an environmental investigation," he said. "They said there was no evidence of a pipeline, they denied its existence, and basically said they wanted nothing further to do with environmentally investigating it. We call on the Illinois EPA to do the right thing, to conduct a proper environmental investigation, and get their butts out there and do the job right, and do it now."

Members of Champaign County Health Care Consumers say the groundwater ordinance offers no protections for human health or the environment, and only protects corporations by exempting them from the costs of cleaning up the pollution for which they're responsible. Bowcock said vapors from chemicals like benzene are exposing residents to levels that can cause blood-borne cancers.

5th and Hill neighborhood resident Magnolia Cook said she was hopeful as Ameren started its cleanup on the former plant site, but her opinion changed quickly.

"I was outraged and heartbroken when I learned that Ameren is planning to leave the toxic groundwater in place in this neighborhood - a site surrounded by a day care, woman's shelter, and people's homes," Cook said. "This is not a toxic site miles away from anything surrounded by cornfields. This is a site with toxic chemicals in the soil and groundwater in a residential neighborhood."

If the city of Champaign doesn't repeal the groundwater ordinance, Bowcock said lawsuits against Ameren are likely. He said the utility did the bare minimum of cleanup by only removing soil on its own property. Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said the gas plant site is in line with Illinois EPA standards, and does not pose a threat to human health or safety. Morris also said there is no evidence of a pipeline coming into the old gas plant site, and that the utility's remediation of the gas plant site will be completed next year.

The Champaign City Council will discuss the groundwater ordinance in Tuesday's study session, which begins at 7 p.m.

(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - February 03, 2011

Healthcare Providers Explore Possible Merger

The parent organization of Provena hospitals in Urbana and Danville is exploring a merger with another Catholic hospital system.

In a joint release, Mokena-based Provena Health and Chicago-based Resurrection Health Care say they have signed a non-binding Letter of Intent to look into combing their organizations.

In the release, Provena Health President and CEO Guy Wiebking said that a merger would "leverage the benefits" of their health care services under the federal health care reform law. Resurrection President and CEO Sandra Bruce said their common heritage as Catholic healthcare organizations could be a foundation for improved care in the communities they serve.

Provena Health and Resurrection Health Care operate six hospitals each, and dozens of other facilities, including clinics, nursing homes and home health agencies. Most are in Illinois. Their joint release states that combined, the two organizations would have a medical staff of nearly 5-thousand physicians and over 22,000 other employees.

Categories: Business, Health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 31, 2011

Ill. Gov. Quinn Signs Historic Civil Unions Legislation

Civil unions for gay and lesbian couples are now the law of the land in Illinois.

About a thousand people crowded into the Chicago Cultural Center on Monday afternoon to watch Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn sign the historic law. The state's General Assembly approved the legislation 61-52 in the House and 32-24 in the Senate.

"We believe in civil rights and we believe in civil unions," Quinn said before signing the bill.

"Illinois is taking an historic step forward in embracing fairness and extending basic dignity to all couples in our state," John Knight, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project of the ACLU of Illinois, said in a written statement issued hours before the bill-signing.

The law, which takes effect June 1, gives gay and lesbian couples official recognition from the state and many of the rights that accompany traditional marriage, including the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner's property.

Five states already allow civil unions or their equivalent, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright, as do some countries, including Canada, South Africa and the Netherlands.

Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and one woman, and civil unions still are not recognized by the federal government.

Opponents argue the law could increase the cost of doing business in Illinois, while Quinn has said it will make the state more hospitable to businesses and convention planners.

The legislation, sent to Quinn in December, passed 61-52 in the Illinois House and 32-24 in the Senate.

Some hope civil unions are a step toward full marriage for gay and lesbian couples, although sponsors of the civil union bill have said they don't plan to push for legalizing same-sex marriages, which have limited support in the Legislature.

Curt McKay served from 1998-2008 as the first full-time director of the University of Illinois' Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center. McKay said the legislation is a huge victory, but he added that there is still more that can be done to provide equal opportunities for LGBT groups.

"A number of the opponents of civil unions in Illinois use as their reason for being opposed that the next thing we'll ask for is same sex marriage," McKay said. "I think providing for LGBT people full inclusion under the laws of the state of Illinois in terms of being equal in every way a straight person is accepted is the final goal."

Some conservative groups said the new law is a stepping stone toward legalized same-sex marriage.

"Marriage was not created by man or governments," David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, said Monday. "It is an institution created by God. Governments merely recognize its nature and importance

Cardinal Francis George and other Catholic leaders also vigorously fought passage of the law. The measure doesn't require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, but critics fear it will lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees' partners.

(With additional reporting from the Associated Press)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - January 25, 2011

Quinn Signs Medicaid Reform into Illinois Law

Gov. Pat Quinn signed major reforms to Medicaid into Illinois law on Tuesday, calling it a "landmark achievement" as he was flanked by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers who said the changes aim to reduce costs, pay bills sooner and target fraud.

But some health care advocates said they're concerned because the reforms to the program that provides medical care to the poor include requiring half of all patients on Medicaid be on managed care by 2015.

"It is a landmark achievement, I think, for health care in Illinois," Quinn said.

Quinn said the Medicaid reform efforts are one part of his plan to "stabilize our budget," as Illinois works to plug a deficit that is projected to hit $15 billion in the coming year.

The governor s office estimates the changes will save between $624 million to $774 million over five years. The program's annual budget is $7.6 billion, about one-third of the state's general revenue fund budget. In Illinois, Medicaid is administered by the Department of Healthcare and Family Services and includes about 2.8 million people.

Another cost-saving measure would limit income for future enrollees into Illinois' health care program for children, All Kids, to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

The law emphasizes HMO-style "managed care" and reduces the use of costly institutions for people with physical and mental disabilities. It would require the state to pay Medicaid bills sooner, reducing late-payment penalties. It also would take steps to ensure ineligible people don't sign up for medical care.

Barbara Dunn, executive director of the Community Health Improvement Center in Decatur, said she has doubts and concerns about plans to require 50 percent of patients to be on managed care by 2015. The center also has offices in Champaign and Mattoon and half of the 19,000 patients it serves are on Medicaid.

"It can work for them but I don't see it as a slam dunk," Dunn said. "I think it's going to be very difficult to do."

Gina Guillemette with the Heartland Alliance in Chicago said she is particularly interested to see how the move to managed care affects populations that the group serves, including the homeless and mentally ill.

"How they proceed is really critical," Guillemette said. "I think that attention to what people's needs are and what best practices are in integrated and coordinated care are really going to be important."

Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said the bill improves the way government delivers services.

"This is providing better health care outcomes at a reduced cost," Steans said. "We are providing the opportunity to move people out of institutions into home and community-based care settings."

Republicans, like state Sen. Dale Righter of Mattoon, said there was cynicism about any success before work started on the legislation. But the changes are necessary, he said.

"This program was on a collision course," Righter said. "It had an unsustainable rate of growth where liabilities were far outstripping the revenues available to pay for it."

Other changes would help ensure that only eligible people enroll in Medicaid. Clients would have to provide additional evidence that they meet income requirements, live in Illinois and, for continuing clients, that they're still eligible.

Jim Duffett, executive director of the Campaign for Better Health Care based in Champaign, said moving patients to Medicaid managed care is a concern.

"We just want to make sure as this process moves forward that there are extra strong consumer protections for people on Medicaid and for the provider community to also be protected," Duffett said.

HFS director Julie Hamos said the state now has a road map to efficient and effective Medicaid.

"This will not be easy," she said. "We are talking about transforming the system.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 20, 2011

University of Illinois Adopts Tuition Control Measure

University of Illinois trustees have adopted a policy designed to limit tuition increases even as they raise the cost of housing at the school's three campuses.

The tuition policy approved Thursday links tuition increases to inflation and other factors.

Students are guaranteed by state law to pay the tuition rate they paid in their freshman year throughout their undergraduate years. But the rate increases for most incoming classes.

This year, tuition increased 9.5 percent and led to complaints from some students and parents. The cost of tuition and housing for a typical undergraduate year at the Urbana-Champaign campus is more than $20,000.

Governor Pat Quinn said he likes 'the basic framework and concept' for the next year's tuition that was outlined Thursday by University of Illinois Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr.

"I think that has a lot of merit to try and keep tuition pretty much even with inflation and adjusted dollars," Quinn said. "I think carrying that out is a good mission."

Quinn said the state is also putting about $404 million into grants for MAP, or the Monetary Awards program., but he said the demand is at least 50-percent higher that. Quinn added that one of his goals for the next four years is to secure more scholarship money for students who attend Illinois' public universities and community colleges.

Trustees on Thursday also raised the cost of a double dorm room in Urbana-Champaign 4 percent to $9,452 a year. Costs in Springfield and Chicago increased less sharply.

(Additional reporting from the Associated Press)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 18, 2011

Durbin: AZ Shootings Could Prompt Action on Mental Health, Gun Laws

Illinois' senior Senator, Dick Durbin, says concrete action can come out of the recent shootings at a congressional event in Tucson Arizona. The attack that killed six people and critically injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz) has led to a flurry of proposals in reaction, from gun control measures to a clampdown on incivility in politics. In an interview with Illinois Public Media's Tom Rogers, Durbin said he thinks some of those ideas can progress beyond the talking stage.

(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)

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WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 14, 2011

Urbana Grocery Store Goes Bagless

Urbana's Common Ground Food Co-op has done away with single-use plastic shopping bags at its registers.

Common Ground's General Manager Jacqueline Hannah predicts that the company's decision to go "bagless" will prevent thousands of plastic bags from ending up in landfills. She encourages customers to start using their own reusable bags, and relying less on plastic grocery store bags that are tossed away immediately.

"You can see the trend happening nationally," Hannah said. "It's actually not really a difficult change to make that can make a big impact. It's simply a change in consciousness."

Back in April, the company asked its customers if they would support not having plastic bags at the registers, and it found that most people backed the plan.

"We knew that we were looking at something people were ready for," Hannah said.

Hannah points out that Common Ground is not giving up on shopping bags completely. In fact, the organic grocery store is selling them to people with the profits going to charity. Customers can pay $0.10 for a paper bag, or $0.99 for a reusable bag. There is also a section in the store where people can donate bags for other customers to use.

There are grocery stores across the country in states like Oregon, Colorado, and New York that have instituted similar policies. California came close last year to becoming the first state to ban plastic shopping bags, but lawmakers rejected the measure.

Categories: Environment, Health

AP - Illinois Public Media News - January 11, 2011

Ill. House Rejects $1-a-pack Hike on Cigarette Tax

The Illinois House has rejected a proposal to raise cigarette taxes by $1 a pack.

The measure was one part of a larger tax plan that would generate about $7 billion a year to help close Illinois' massive budget deficit. The cigarette portion was supposed to produce about $375 million.

The cigarette proposal got only 51 of the 60 votes needed to pass Tuesday, but it could be brought back for another vote later.

Adding a dollar would more than double the tax rate for cigarettes.

Many lawmakers said that would hurt convenience stores and gas stations that sell cigarettes. They said the impact would be particularly harsh in border areas where neighboring states have lower taxes.

Categories: Economics, Government, Health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 11, 2011

Carle Hospital Developing Brain Cooling Technique for Brain Injuries

Research at Carle Foundation Hospital will preserve the brain following an injury much in the way we'd do the same to a broken arm or ankle.

A year-long study will enable the use of cooling head covers for victims of severe head trauma or stroke. A $700-thousand contract from the Department of Defense will look at how patients respond to these devices. The goal is cooling the brain while the rest of the body is kept at a higher temperature.

Former NASA Scientist Bill Elkins is the founder and chief scientist of WElkins, LLC. His design for the cooling head device is based on those for spacesuits that he designed several years ago. Elkins says by 'hibernating' nerve tissue, that stops oxygen demand.

"It's like changing time, stretching time," he said. "What was the golden hour for irreversable damage now is now 5 or 6 or 7 hours. So it gives the doctors a lot more time to begin the recovery process." For example, in his first study, Elkins says there was a 16-year old girl seriously injured in a car accident. He says she was comatose, and near death. Cooling began about 4 hours after the accident, and Elkins says she was fully recovered within six months.

Carle Neurosurgeon John Wang compared the use of the devices to a child drowning in water, whose brain temperature, and risk of death, is much greater in the summer than the winter. "High temperature is bad for the brain," said Wang. "So then you say, I want to protect the brain, but I don't want to compromise the rest of the body, because the rest of the body likes to be at the physiological temperature, if possible. So then you start to think about a selective mechanism of cooling the brain."

The ultimate goal is to place the head covers in all emergency vehicles. Carle will hold a series of public meetings to let people know more about the research, and solicit community feedback:

Schedule for the Upcoming Meetings: January 25 - Bloomington Public Library, 205 E. Olive Street, 6 p.m.

February 8 -Champaign Public Library, 200 W. Green Street, 7 p.m.

February 9 - Burgess-Osborne Auditorium, 1701 Wabash Avenue, Mattoon, 6 p.m.

February 16 - Danville Public Library, 319 N. Vermilion Street, 6 p.m.

(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)

Categories: Health

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