Illinois Public Media News
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.
The West Nile virus has been discovered in Champaign County.
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District said one of its mosquito samples from Urbana tested positive for the blood-borne disease. The Public Health District's Jeff Blackford said their test results were confirmed by the Illinois Natural History Survey.
Blackford said that with this evidence of West Nile Virus in Champaign County, it's time for residents to take precautions against catching the disease from a mosquito bite.
"Now is the time to take general precautions when you're protecting yourself when you're out by using EPA-registered insect repellent and wearing long sleeves and long pants whenever weather permits," Blackford said. "And if it at all possible, avoid being outdoors at dawn, dusk or early in the evening, when mosquitoes are most active."
Blackford also recommends changing standing water in bird baths, wading pools and water dishes twice a week, and throwing out old tires and other objects that can collect standing water, as a way to reduce the mosquito population around the yard.
Champaign County is the 12th Illinois county to find a bird or insect sample with the West Nile Virus so far this year. Macon County is also on the list. To date, no human cases of the disease have been reported in Illinois in 2011.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
A coalition of groups, including the Chicago-based national YMCA, has issued the first-ever comprehensive national nutritional and physical activity guidelines for camps and after school programs.
The standards were issued Tuesday by the Healthy Out-of-School Time Coalition and coordinated by the YMCA, the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.
They include a common sense-approach including serving fruits and vegetables instead of more sugary, fatty treats; and offering water rather than juices or soda. Half-day programs should offer at least half an hour of physical activity; full-day programs should offer at least an hour.
"Energy balance and appropriate physical activity are critical to good health and preventing childhood obesity, which is reaching record numbers in this country," said project co-leader Ellen S. Gannett, director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time. "If out-of-school programs can influence smart choices for children when they're away from home and out of the classroom, they will be an important component in the campaign to fight childhood obesity."
The new standards have already been adopted by the National AfterSchool Association (NAA), and local YMCA's will begin the process of adopting the standards this year.
According to the coalition, more than eight million children nationwide participate in out-of-school programs for at least three hours a day.
The association that oversees Illinois high school sports has announced it will continue testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs.
The Illinois High School Association said Monday its board voted to continue the testing that started in the 2008-09 school year. Illinois is one of three states that test high school athletes for performance enhancers such as steroids.
The association said it tested 747 athletes last school year and had four positive tests. Two of those were cleared by medical review and two were found to be true positives.
IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman said critics might consider the low number of positive test results a reason to stop testing. But he said the program is meant to be a deterrent rather than to catch all offenders.
Seven Illinois residents have been sickened by a nationwide outbreak of salmonella that authorities say could be from ground turkey.
The Illinois Department of Public Health is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture, to try to nail down the exact source of the contamination.
Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said it will be a very complicated process.
"It does take quite a lot of time to do the trace back just because of all the steps -- first of all recognizing that there is one particular type of strain of salmonella out there and then trying to make that link -- there are so many different steps and so many interviews that need to occur that it does take time," Arnold said.
According to Arnold, until a source is identified, Illinois residents can still buy ground turkey. Arnold recommends residents prepare and handle the meat safely, cooking the turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. As long as people take the right precautions, she said, they should be fine.
Across the country, a total of 77 people have been affected by the strain, leading to one death. In Illinois, the first case was reported to the state's Department of Public Health in March, and the most recent case was reported on June 29.
The USDA has yet to recall any turkey products in relation to the outbreak.
An Illinois Appellate Court has upheld a Sangamon County judge's ruling, preventing the state from moving ahead with new health insurance contracts for state employees and retirees.
In June, a Sangamon County Circuit Judge prevented Illinois' Department of Healthcare and Family Services from dropping Urbana-based Health Alliance, leaving the health insurance policies of thousands of state workers into doubt.
Gov. Pat Quinn's administration argued the so-called 'open access' plans will save the state about $100 million a year. Health Alliance then filed suit. The 90-day extensions of current contracts granted by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability are set to expire in September.
In its ruling, the 4th District Appellate Court said the state ignored a decision by that group. Champaign Senator Mike Frerichs is part of the bipartisan legislative commission. While the court's decision does not immediately impact state workers, he said it gives more fuel to additional extensions, and hopefully a long-term solution.
"I think what employees want is to be able to continue access to their health care providers, and I'm hopeful this ruling will help us get to that point," Frerichs said.
In a statement, Health Alliance CEO Jeff Ingrum called the court's ruling encouraging, with hopes that it leads to the provider remaining an option for state workers and retirees.
"This is good news for all of those who fought so hard to keep Health Alliance," Ingrum said. "We hope it leads to Health Alliance remaining an option for state workers and retirees."
The Department of Healthcare and Family Services said the state is reviewing its legal options following the court ruling.
"We remain confident in the process of awarding and contracting with the winning vendors as well as their ability to offer quality healthcare at a price that will save the state money during these tough fiscal times," said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
At a COGFA hearing scheduled for Aug. 16 in Chicago, the panel will vote on extending the current insurance contracts through June 30, 2012. Three days later, the state will argue before the Sangamon County Judge that blocked the new contracts whether COGFA has the authority to extend the current ones.
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