Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 01, 2011

AFSCME Files Grievance Against State Employee Health Insurance Switch

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

Champaign Firm Recalls RC Helicopters for Blade Hazard

Champaign-based Horizon Hobby is recalling nearly 18,000 remote-controlled model helicopters sold under one of its own brands in the U-S and Canada.

The U-S Consumer Product Safety Commission and Health Canada announced the recall Tuesday.

The products pose a hazard, because the main rotor blades and blade grips can fly off from the rotor head, and pose an impact or laceration hazard. Hoirzon Hobby has received 312 reports of the rotor blades flying off the rotor head. There have been 34 reports of the blades striking someone, including 12 lacerations.

The voluntary recall affects the Blade Bind-N-Fly Helicopter (Model # BLH3580) and Ready to Fly Helicopter (Model # BLH3500), and the Main Blade Grips replacement parts (Model # BLH3514).

The CPSC says consumers should contact Horizon Hobby for free replacement parts and directions. Horizon Hobby has set up a recall hot-line at 877-504-0233.

Categories: Business, Health

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 30, 2011

Bill to Overturn Changes to Health Contracts Heads to Ill. Governor

State legislators are trying to assert their authority on the approval of public employee health insurance contracts.

They passed a measure Monday in the Illinois House of Representatives by a vote of 98-15 to give themselves the ability to approve or deny new contracts.

However, it may be too late to stave off changes that are forcing one hundred thousand public employees to switch health care coverage.

The changes come in direct response to the recent ethics commission ruling that the state was right to drop the HMOs provided by Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana.

Legislators were outraged and said the contract award process was inherently flawed. The administration maintains it followed the rules set forth by legislators themselves. State Representative David Leitch (R-Peoria) said lawmakers should be able to overturn decisions.

"What kind of idiots would come up with a process that would permit this to happen," Leitch said.

But not everyone wants to scrap the recent bidding process and put the decisions in the hands of a new seven member panel. House Democrat Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago voted against the measure. She said legislators need to think twice before bypassing a law aimed at taking politics out of the group employee health insurance program.

"I think you have to look carefully at the idea that this handful of people should be able to say to the losers, 'OK, losers, today because of us seven people you get to be a winner," Currie said. "That's not the way to run any state government."

The measure passed in the midst of the annual open enrollment period when workers can pick new health plans.

Governor Quinn's Administration is moving forward despite the legislation, and telling employees to choose coverage before June 17th. After that date workers will automatically be placed in a new plan.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 27, 2011

Bill to Block New State Employee Healthcare Plans Heads to Ill. House

A measure that would scrap the new, controversial group health insurance plans for state employees, and restart the process under a different state agency --- with more legislative oversight - passed the Illinois Senate Friday evening by a 37-12 vote.

State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) is sponsoring an amendment to Senate Bill #178, with downstate Republicans Dale Righter, Shane Cultra, Larry Bomke and Bill Brady signed up as co-sponsors. The measure cleared the Senate Local Government and Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday. Co-sponsor Righter said one problem with the new health insurance plans, is that they require many state employees now using HMO plans from Health Alliance and Humana to switch to Open Access Plans --- plans which the state self-insures.

"So the state's potential liability is going to go way up," Righter said. "Now again, that can save you money over the long term, as long as you run a tight, efficient program. That's really the question, I think, out there for lawmakers is --- is this administration in the habit of doing that, or is this administration even capable of doing that?"

The bill would go back to the present mix of group insurance plans, current set to expire at the end of June. The procurement process for new plans would start over --- but under the Department of Central Management Services --- not the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, which is presently in charge.

And Frerichs, the bill's lead sponsor, said the measure would give the General Assembly more oversight of the process for selecting insurance plans, through its Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

"I think it's a good idea to have more eyes overseeing the process", said Frerichs, whose Senate District includes thousands of University of Illinois employees, many of whom receive healthcare through Urbana-based Health Alliance. "No one is perfect. People make mistakes. And that's why I've also focused on making sure that the General Assembly is involved in this as well."

Currently, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services is ignoring a vote by the Forecasting and Accountability Commission to block the new insurance plans.

The bill must now pass the House to beat the legislature's May 31st adjournment deadline.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Plan to Cut HMO’s From State Contract Means More Calls by U of I Employees

A state agency's plans to proceed with new health insurance contracts means a number of calls have come in to the University of Illinois' Payroll and Benefits office.

On Wednesday, Illinois' Department of Healthcare and Family Services opted to proceed with a contract that leaves out Health Alliance and Humana HMO's.

Executive Director of U of I Payroll and Benefits Jim Davito says his office is taking questions from state workers in areas with no HMO coverage now asked to choose between Personal Care and HealthLink Open Access Plans, and the state's own Quality Care Health Plan. DaVito says concerns have ranged from higher cost to changing doctors.

He encourages state employees and retirees to thoroughly research their plans, and not have one chosen for them if they miss the June 17th deadline.

"We would much rather see each of our employees choose the new plan that they're going to have starting July 1, rather than having a default option defined by CMS (the State Department of Central Management Services) determine what coverage you're going to have for the next year," said Davito, who says the pending changes for state workers should prompt them to thoroughly review their benefits package. He says the same for some who have been on HealthLink the past few years.

"Many people have chosen it, but a lot of people have never looked at it," said Davito. "And so it's a new concept, and I would encourage people to look at the literature, and call HealthLink, and call Personal Care OAP, and talk about the questions that you have."

Davito says the Open Access Plans are unusual in that they're composed of three tiers, with the lowest tier being similar to an HMO. The state agency is moving forward with the state insurance contract despite a vote against it Wednesday by the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

The U of I plans to hold more Benefits Choice informational sessions on campus soon.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 25, 2011

Il. Commission Votes to Suspend Open Access Plans for State Employees

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)

The state agency in charge of health insurance for public employees says it is going forward with a plan to drop Health Alliance HMO and Humana as options for state and university employees' medical insurance.

Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana have protested the move.

The state's decision comes in spite of a vote Wednesday morning by the bipartisan Commission on Governmental Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA) to end self-insured/Open Access Plans for state employees, which is what the state planned to move employees to in areas where the HMO/Blue Cross Blue Shield plan isn't available. The vote potentially sets up a constitutional clash over the fate of health insurance for about 100,000 state and university workers.

Moving many employees to this sort of plan is how Governor Pat Quinn's administration had been planning to save up to $100 million a year.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a ruling last week stating that legislators don't have the power to interfere with specific contracts. However, despite Madigan's ruling, State Senator and CGFA member Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said the commission has the authority to weigh in on policy changes. He also noted that the commission's vote reflects a major policy shift in self-insurance at the state level.

"And that's something we have consent power over," Frerichs said. "We don't have the ability to consent to individual contracts, but this big policy shift we do. We rejected that, and I think that will necessitate rebidding of the whole package."

State Senator Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) also sits on the commission. He said the vote by CGFA was done as an attempt to get all parties back to the bargaining table.

"My hope is that everybody involved in this process, rather than rush into court and having lawsuits, can all sit down together and try and perhaps try and rebid it, come up with a different plan," Murphy said.

It is unclear if the commission's vote is binding, and could send matters into a tailspin. The Department of Healthcare and Family Services is going forward as if that vote was insignificant.

"We followed the letter of the law," DHFS spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. "Everything was done fairly, it was done ethically, so why would we reopen the bidding?"

Downstate legislators have been highly critical of the decision to drop Health Alliance. They have shown no signs of letting down.

Meanwhile, many of the employees and retirees with Health Alliance as medical insurance say they don't want a new provider because they fear they will be forced to switch doctors. They are also concerned they will pay more out of pocket on doctor's visits.

As it stands now, state employees have until June 17 to decide what provider they want for medical coverage. The state is also considering opening another enrollment period this fall.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 25, 2011

Report Looks at Substance Use Among Illinois Teens

A study out, known as the Illinois Youth Survey, shows fewer Illinois teens are smoking cigarettes and drinking large amounts of alcohol at once, but the survey says marijuana use appears to be steady.

Beth Welbes with the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois said nationally, marijuana use is going up. She said the state findings show more teens are downplaying the risks associated with smoking marijuana.

"The state rates and the state estimates are really valuable, especially for state policy makers because they can take a look and they can see where do we need to direct our resources in terms of substance abuse prevention and other health areas," Welbes said.

The survey also reported a drop in DUIs among high school seniors, and a decrease in the use of illicit drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 24, 2011

Ethics Commission Upholds Decision to Drop Health Alliance HMO, Humana

Ethics Commission Upholds Decision to Drop Health Alliance HMO, Humana

There's disappointing news for state and university employees and retirees who had been holding out hope Illinois would continue to offer Health Alliance and Humana health insurance.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 23, 2011

Location Device for Autistic Children Would Connect with 911

Searching for lost children and seniors may be a little easier under a plan state legislators sent to Governor Pat Quinn.

It's a small wristband and fastens just like a watch, but instead of telling the time, a small microchip inside acts like a GPS system. They are worn by people prone to wandering off like autistic children or someone with Alzheimer's.

Lawmakers voted to allow the device to patch in directly to 911, an exemption not many other private alarm companies enjoy. The wristband itself could call police when a person goes missing. Carol Stream Republican Senator John Millner said a single cop can find the missing person, rather having to activate a whole search squad.

"With this device here, its simply one call, one activation and we would be able to find that person swiftly, saving money, saving time," Millner said.

But Rockford Republican Dave Syverson voted against it. Only one business in the state, Murphysboro-based Care Trak, currently makes the devices.

"For one company we're setting up that they can go to 911 direct, but for burglaries, and for seniors, they still run through the private sector," Syverson said.

Syverson said if the state gives this company an exemption, other alarm systems will want the same perk.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 23, 2011

Lawmakers Hold Hearing on State Health Insurance Contracts

State legislators continue to give state employees a venue to air their grievances about the potential loss of their health care plan.

Members of the Senate Insurance Committee met Monday, and heard from about a dozen university workers and state employees whose HMO is Urbana-based Health Alliance.

Officials with the Department of Health Care and Family Services decided in May to end Illinois' 30-year relationship with Health Alliance, saying it would award HMO contracts for the next fiscal year to Blue Cross Blue Shield, with Open Access Plan contracts to PersonalCare and HealthLink.

The state estimates the new contracts would save taxpayers over $100 million a year, and over one billion dollars over the next ten years.

"This decision to drop Health Alliance is about more than bureaucratic procedure, state contracts, or budget numbers," State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said. "It's about potentially disrupted care, loss of long-standing patient-doctor relationships, and lack of access to quality health care at an affordable cost for tens of thousands of people in downstate Illinois."

State Senator John Jones (R-Mount Vernon) made an ultimatum to Governor Pat Quinn and Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos. Jones said he may hold off on voting for certain pieces of legislation until the Health Alliance controversy is solved.

"There's a lot of major legislation that needs to be passed in the next few days, including a budget. It's time that all of us said, 'Hey governor, and Director Hamos, if you want that done, you better take care of this first," he said.

Officials from from the University of Illinois, Health Alliance, and Humana testified before the committee. However, there were no representatives present from from the Governor's Office or the Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

Humana Illinois also had its contract dropped.

One of the biggest gripes has been the dearth of facts leading up to the state's decision.

"It's shocking the lack of transparency and information when you're talking about a topic like health insurance and the magnitude of the cost," Humana Illinois Dave Reynolds said.

But health department officials say they are just following the law.

"We've had to be very conservative in what we can tell the public, legislators and even the press so as to not violate the strict ethical rules in the process," Healthcare and Family Services spokeswoman Stacey Solano said.

Solano said as soon as there is a ruling by a state ethics commission on Health Alliance and Humana's objections, the administration will be able to explain its decision. She said that should put to rest employees' fears and anxiety, which she said are "being fed by misinformation."

The Committee of Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) is set to meet Wednesday, May 25 to discuss the matter.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently ruled it is not within lawmakers' power to approve or deny the contracts in question.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

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