Illinois Public Media News
The state of Illinois has announced that the deadline to register for group health insurance has been extended to Monday.
Most state and university employees could choose to stay on with their existing health care plans for the next three months. State officials announced Thursday that all HMOs and open access plans will stay in place for 90 days, with Humana being the only holdout. That means most current employees and retirees can stay with their current provider until October, with no further paperwork.
Meanwhile, Human Resources staff at the University of Illinois say the number of calls from employees about the application process has slowed considerably since the contract extensions were announced. U of I Associate Director of Human Resources Administration, Katie Ross, says the questions now are fairly simple, usually asking for primary care physician numbers and codes for an employee's preferred health plan.
And Ross says the Benefit Choice application web site got a boost of additional memory prior to the last time employees registered for health plans.
"It then underwent more testing and we're very confident in that performance," said Ross. "But this is a very unique situation that we're in where so many hits are going to be at the very last minute. We're watching carefully, and we have extra staff assigned."
In total, she says just over half the employees on the Urbana campus opted for a different health plan in the last few weeks. She says her office processed about 3,000 transactions Wednesday.
Things are also slowing down for Human Resources staff at Illinois State University. Khris Clevenger, the Assistant Vice President for Human Resources, says the school in Normal only recently implemented a web-based application process. She says 1,000 of 3,500 employees used the site Thursday with no problems logging on.
A pastor who was one of the original Freedom Riders and spent much of his life in Champaign-Urbana has died.
The Rev. Ben Elton Cox Sr. died Sunday in Jackson, Tenn. The 79-year-old Baptist minister had lived in Tennessee since 1998.
The News-Gazette reports that Cox was among the Freedom Riders who went to the South in the early 1960s to protest segregation. He was on a bus that was attacked in Anniston, Ala., in 1961 by white men with clubs and bricks.
Speaking on a panel with fellow Freedom Riders Ed Blankenheim and Hank Thomas in 2003 at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Cox said he got off easier than his fellow panelists. But he said that as an African-American, discrimination had been a constant part of his life, ever since he first learned about it at age four.
"You're looking at a man who's an ordained minister, preaching since I was 17", Cox told his audience. "I'm 72. And since I realized what segregation was at the age of four, I have never had one day of total freedom in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I've either been discriminated against, or heard about it or listened to other confessions about it. But yet, I love America. As far as I'm concerned, it's the greatest country on earth. If you find one better, call me collect."
Ben Cox Jr. says his father spoke little about his role in the Freedom Rides and the civil rights movement. The younger Cox believes his father wanted to shield him from the darker things he'd experienced.
Cox spent his teen years in Kankakee and lived much of his adult life in Champaign-Urbana.
(Photos courtesy of codepinkhq/flickr)
A federal judge in Chicago said Wednesday that he will approve a legal settlement allowing thousands of developmentally disabled Illinoisans to move out of institutions, and into smaller, community-based homes.
The agreement could end end six years of legal wrangling, paving the way for some 6,000 developmentally disabled Illinoisans to move out of the larger, institutional settings. Some advocates say those homes do not provide enough independence for some residents. Under a consent decree being considered by U.S. District Judge James F. Holderman, the state of Illinois would have to help developmentally disabled people find smaller homes if they choose to leave the larger institutions.
John Grossbart, the plantinffs' head lawyer, said the consent decree that's expected to be officially approved soon is good news for people who might thrive in a less institutional environment.
"When you wanna turn on the TV and turn off the TV, you can do so," Grossbart said after court Wednesday. "When you wanna get a glass of milk and have a snack at some peculiar time of day, you can do that. Start taking stuff like that away from yourself and see how you feel."
Grossbart said the lawsuit was necessary because Illinois has been dragging its feet when it comes to helping people move into smaller, more independent homes that advocates say let the disabled to grow and ineract more often with the community. As of 2009, only 38 percent of the state's developmentally disabled lived in such homes, according to the 2011 State of the States in Developmental Disabilities, a study by the Unverisity of Colorado that was partially funded by the federal government. That's compared to 75 percent nationwide.
"I'm happy," said Stanley Ligas, 43, the lead plaintiff in the case. "I'm ready to move. Hallelujah, I made it!"
Ligas currently lives in a larger group home setting and has a part-time job, he said. But he added that he's looking forward to being able to work full-time once he moves into a smaller home.
Advocates have launched several lawsuits in recent years aimed at giving Illinois' disabled population more housing options. Last fall, a federal judge approved a similar consent decree that allows for about 4,000 mentally ill Illinoisans to move out of institutions.
In a statement a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services said the agency is pleased with the agreement.
"[It] will open up more community-based care options for people with disabilities who choose it," spokeswoman Januari Smith said. "We want to thank everyone who came together to put the needs of people with disabilities first. The department has worked hard to reach a settlement, and will continue to work diligently with all parties involved."
The settlement stipulates that the state must now help people who want to move out of the institutions to find new homes in the smaller, community care settings. The total cost of that placement depends on how many people want to move, Smith said, adding that average cost of a community setting for a full year is about $32,000.
Health Alliance Receives 90-Day Extension
Most state and university employees could choose to stay on with their existing health care plans for the next three months.
Illinois legislators are meeting with Governor Pat Quinn Thursday in hopes of winning his support for a gambling expansion bill.
Quinn has spoken out against the legislation -- approved last month-- which would add slot machines and five new casinos, including one in Danville.
Rather than give Quinn the chance to veto or change the package, either of which would likely kill it, legislators used a technical maneuver to keep it from going to the governor's desk.
Senate sponsor Terry Link (D-30th) said the hold gives him time to assuage the governor's concerns.
"Yeah, we will increase in size but you know we're not up there being another Las Vegas by any means," he said.
Link said he is open to talking with Quinn if the governor has any suggestions on how to downsize the measure. But said the casino set to go in his district near Waukegan would have to remain.
House sponsor Lou Lang (D-16th) will also be in on talks with Quinn.
"To the extent that I can accommodate the governor, I'm willing to listen to him. Willing to hear what he wants to do. But I'm not willing to state upfront that I'm prepared to shrink the bill down," Lang said.
However, Lang said he won't accept substantial changes.
The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana says the new Hoosier law that bars funds going to Planned Parenthood may actually lead to more unwanted pregnancies.
Ken Falk submitted the ACLU's final written arguments this week in its case to get $1.2 million in federal funding restored to its client, Planned Parenthood of Indiana.
"If everyone agrees that abortion is not a good thing, then doesn't it make sense to make it easy and to encourage women to get family planning services?" Falk said. "At some point, this is extremely counter-productive, that it is being done here to strip these thousands of woman of their provider of choice."
Falk is also trying to use Indiana's own legal opinions against itself. Prior to the law's passage this spring, Indiana lawmakers received word from the Indiana Legislative Services Agency that the legislation would violate federal guidelines. Federal policy allows eligible Medicaid participants to obtain medical services from providers of their choice.
The head of the federal government's Medicaid program sent a letter along those lines to Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration. The letter stated that Indiana's law is illegal and the state could face penalties if it did not restore Planned Parenthood's funding.
Some 22,000 low-income Hoosier women depend on Medicaid for general and family-planning care. They are affected by Indiana's new law, which bans Medicaid and other funding to any agency that performs abortions. The law also bars abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.
Falk said the measure is misguided, because federal law already bans Medicaid money being spent on abortions. Planned Parenthood uses Medicaid money to provide family planning and other health services that are not related to abortion.
The Indiana Attorney General's office is defending the law before U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, who presides in Indianapolis. The state of Indiana contends the court fight should be between the federal government and the state, and should not involve Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. Pratt is expected to rule on the ACLU's injunction request by July 1st.
Falk said if funding isn't restored soon, Planned Parenthood may lay off employees. So far, the organization has stayed afloat because private donors around the country have contributed more than $100,000.
Indiana Gov. Mich Daniels said he supports the law since most Hoosiers oppose abortion.
(With additional reporting by Pam Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess)
The term "food desert' has gained traction in recent years as a name for areas with a shortage of full-service food stores. But it's not clear how big a role they play in the lives of people who struggle to get the food they need. As part of the series "Life on Route 150," Illinois Public Media's Jim Meadows visited the Piatt County town of Mansfield. The people there have enough to eat, but they have to travel to get it.
Prior to Tuesday's vote by the the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, University of Illinois employees were asking a number of questions with the Friday open enrollment deadline quickly approaching.
As things stand now, state workers and retirees still have until Friday to choose a health insurance plan. At one of the last outreach sessions on the Urbana campus, employees were being advised to choose the one they want, although they could still be defaulted into the Quality Care Health Plan option at the deadline.
One employee, Becky Heller, said her biggest concern is being allowed to change her mind if a better choice becomes available.
"They're not letting us know whether that's a guarantee or not," Heller said. "They're saying they think that they'll open enrollment again, and they think that they'll let us switch if things change, but they're not guaranteeing that. So we very well may be stuck with whatever we choose for an entire year."
Heller said she may have to consider an HMO plan in a nearby county and find a new doctor, but would still be paying lower premiums than what is in the Quality Care plan.
Employee Kathryn Smith said her concern is the state's backlog of bills, and the time it takes hospitals to be reimbursed.
"I don't know if any business in this country today that has its doors open if it's creditors don't pay them within a year," Smith said. "I'm a little concerned that our hospitals aren't going to survive this if we are left on this Quality Care Health Plan."
Brenda Butts is assistant director of University Payroll and Benefits at the U of I's Urbana campus. She said even if an employee chooses an option they ultimately cannot enroll in, Butts said she believes the state will benefit by simply seeing how many have opted for a particular plan, or 'voted' for it.
The Champaign City Council has reversed course on plans for a four-percent tax on package liquor.
The plan to raise revenue was unanimously rejected after hearing from a number of business owners.
A few weeks after approving it in a six-to-three vote, the city council shot down the plan during Tuesday night's study session nine-to-nothing. The proposal was seen as a way to restore funding for three positions at the police department, and overnight hours at the front desk.
But liquor store owners say it is unfair to single out one industry to save those jobs. Sun Singer Wines owner Mark Yarbrough said it is not a question of whether he would lose business to neighboring Savoy, but how much of it. He said the tax would take a lot of work to implement.
"There's a lot of unseen and mitigating circumstances that say this is a hasty rush to judgment to pass this tax without thoroughly studying it," Yarbrough said. "And I believe it would take many study sessions in order for you to have a comprehensive understanding what is actually going on here."
Council member Karen Foster suggested the tax last month, but she said she did not anticipate the opposition. Mayor Don Gerard said he was simply looking for something to fulfill a campaign pledge to fund the police jobs, but the vote Tuesday was simply about the tax.
"As I've said all along, I don't like taxes. I don't want to do a tax. My point is retaining the services to the public," Gerard said. "And I was very heartened with the fact that most of the responses agreed and concurred that they, too would like to see the police station overnight. They just don't want to be taxed on their liquor."
Gerard said city may have to transfer existing funds, but will continue to look at new revenue sources. Council members expect to discuss those revenue sources by next month, after voting on a budget plan next Tuesday.
State Senator Mike Frerichs (D- Champaign) says he has decided against a run for the re-drawn 13th Congressional District against incumbent Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana).
Frerichs said it would interfere too much on time with his young daughter. But he does say his party has a good chance of picking up the Congressional seat, where Johnson has been lumped into a largely unfamiliar territory near St. Louis.
"I think the 13th Congressional District is largely unrepresented by an incumbent," Frerichs said. "I think it will be a good year for Democrats to run. In my meetings with folks in Washington, DC, I think they could answer all my questions except how one can serve as a good congressman and spend enough time with their family."
Frerichs said he is proud of reforms made to areas like education and worker's compensation, but he said many challenges await him, such as current changes to group health insurance for state workers.
His current 52nd Senate District did not change much in the redistricting map approved by Governor Pat Quinn, but Frerichs said it should be less confusing to constituents now that it covers nearly all of Champaign.
Meanwhile, the first Republican candidate has announced a run for Frerichs' seat.
Political Activist John Bambenek said a lot of incumbent state lawmakers are not leading with courage on issues like the budget and worker's compensation. Bambenek added that he is worried about their impact on future generations.
"And this issue is what major businesses like Caterpillar, Boeing, and manufacturing and industrial industries say is the biggest issue for them of the business climate in Illinois that needs (to be) addressed," Bambenek explained. "This is the biggest thing driving businesses out of the state."
Bambanek says he's spoken with two other possible Republican candidates for the office: Al Reynolds, who lost to Frerichs last year, and Champaign County Board member Al Nudo. "They have to make their decision about whether they're moving forward," said Bambanek. "They have their stories to tell, I think mine is more compelling."
He said this time around, any successful candidate will have to spend about $1.5 million in order to compete, but believes the resources will be available. Bambenek unsuccessfully ran for the Champaign Unit 4 School Board in 2007.
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