Illinois Public Media News
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.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said early Sunday that he won't run for president because of family considerations, narrowing the field in the race for the GOP nomination.
"In the end, I was able to resolve every competing consideration but one," the Republican said, disclosing his decision in an e-mail to supporters. "The interests and wishes of my family, is the most important consideration of all. If I have disappointed you, I will always be sorry."
The e-mail, sent by the governor through Eric Holcomb, the Indiana Republican Party chairman and one of Daniels' closest advisers, was confirmed by other others close to the governor on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly pre-empting his announcement.
A two-term Midwestern governor, Daniels had been considering a bid for months and was pressured by many in the establishment wing of the party hungering for a conservative with a strong fiscal record to run. He expressed interest in getting in the race partly because it would give him a national platform to ensure the country's fiscal health would remain part of the 2012 debate.
But he always said his family - his wife and four daughters - was a sticking point.
"The counsel and encouragement I received from important citizens like you caused me to think very deeply about becoming a national candidate," Daniels said in the middle-of-the-night message.
"If you feel that this was a non-courageous or unpatriotic decision, I understand and will not attempt to persuade you otherwise," he added. "I only hope that you will accept my sincerity in the judgment I reached."
He becomes the latest Republican to opt against a run as the GOP searches for a Republican to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
The Indiana governor's close friend, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, surprised much of the GOP when he pulled the plug on a candidacy in April; he privately had encouraged Daniels to run instead. A week ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus winner, bowed out, followed quickly by celebrity real estate developer Donald Trump.
They followed others who decided to sit this one out as well, even as polls show Republican primary voters wanting more options in a race that includes former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, as well as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a handful of others.
In the wake of the decisions by Barbour and Huckabee to skip the race, the clamoring among establishment Republicans for Daniels to run - including from the Bush family circle - had become ear-shattering.
Daniels, himself, had sounded more optimistic about a run in the past week than he had in months, though he never had sounded particularly enthused. And his advisers had been quietly reaching out to Republicans in Iowa and other early nominating states for private conversations.
But, as he talked about a candidacy, he always pointed back to his family as the primary issue that would hold him back.
And as he weighed a bid, the spotlight shown on his unusual marital history as well as his record as governor.
His wife, Cheri, filed for divorce in 1993 and moved to California to remarry, leaving him to raise their four daughters in Indiana. She later divorced, and she and Daniels reconciled and remarried in 1997.
Mrs. Daniels had never taken much of a public role in her husband's political career.
So it raised eyebrows when she was chosen as the keynote speaker at a major Indiana fundraiser earlier in May.
Both husband and wife were said to be pleased with the reception they got, and advisers privately suggested that the outcome could encourage Daniels to run for president. Even so, Republicans in Washington and Indiana with ties to Daniels put the odds at 50/50.
A former budget director under George W. Bush, Daniels used his time considering a run to also shine a spotlight on rising budget deficits and national debt - even though his former boss grew the scope of government and federal spending during his tenure.
Daniels, a one-time senior executive at Eli Lilly & Co., caused a stir among cultural conservatives by saying the next president facing economic crisis "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues."
He is looked with admiration in GOP circles for being the rare Republican who won office in a Democratic year - 2008 - in a state that Obama had won. And, since being re-elected, he has leveraged Republican majorities in the state Legislature to push through a conservative agenda.
Daniels made his intentions clear in a characteristically understated e-mail.
It ended: "Many thanks for your help and input during this period of reflection. Please stay in touch if you see ways in which an obscure Midwestern governor might make a constructive contribution to the rebuilding of our economy and our Republic.
Officials at U.S. District Court in Chicago say the corruption retrial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich won't restart until Wednesday.
Clerk of Court Michael Dobbins released a brief statement Friday afternoon saying there'd be no trial proceedings either Monday or Tuesday.
Since testimony got under way at the start of this month, jurors have heard evidence Monday through Thursday with Fridays off.
Judge James Zagel has said he'll meet attorneys Monday to begin discussing instructions that'll eventually be given to jurors when they withdraw to deliberate.
That meeting is still expected to take place. Dobbins' statement didn't say why there'd be no testimony early in the week.
The prosecution rested this week. And the defense is expected to start calling witnesses when the retrial resumes Wednesday morning.
Many of the 100,000 state and university employees covered by Health Alliance HMO are outraged at the possibility they will have to switch plans and doctors and possibly pay more.
The Attorney General has issued an opinion that clarifies what legislators can do about it. Legislators continue to fight back against the decision to drop Health Alliance as an option for employee medical coverage.
The Attorney General's opinion says the legislature has no say over that. But the opinion does make clear a bipartisan legislative commission can authorize or reject if Illinois acts as a self-insurer.
The state has a self-funded, Open Access Plan now. Republican Representative Chad Hays of Catlin said employees will have no choice but to sign up for it because the new HMO choice, Blue Cross Blue Shield, doesn't have a downstate network of doctors.
"There simply is not an HMO option in most of downstate Illinois, so by definition we are going to push people into an open access plan," Hays said.
The commission could then say that with so many added people, it's unaffordable for the state to offer self-funded insurance, and reject offering one completely. That may send the issue into a tailspin, with potentially no managed care option, something the state must provide. It would pit legislators who want to keep Health Alliance, against Governor Pat Quinn. His administration says dropping Health Alliance will save the state money. The insurance firm disputes that claim.
The Department of Healthcare and Family Services says it's 100 percent confident in its decision and promises that will become clear once it allowed to release more details.
The state can't do that now because Urbana-based Health Alliance is protesting the bid process.
In the meantime Hays has filed a resolution asking that the state extend until September how long employees have to choose what health insurance they want for the next year.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn says he is willing to talk about adding a casino in Chicago, but he stated on Friday that he is opposed to a larger expansion of gambling.
"If it's done the right way, it's worth looking at," Quinn said, referring to the possibility of starting a casino in Chicago. "It's very important where the money goes that is derived from this."
Quinn wants help to fund areas of the budget like education. A Chicago casino would be much larger than any currently in operation in Illinois. Gaming supporters have also pushed for slot machines at horse tracks.
New Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports a casino in the city to help generate revenue. Many Chicagoans now make the short drive over the Indiana border to gamble at casinos there.
When asked what he thinks about the prospect of Danville getting a casino, Quinn said Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer should not "hold his breath." Quinn said he doesn't want the state to be the "Las Vegas of the Midwest."
Eisenhauer said a casino would be a huge boost to Danville's economy, bringing in millions of dollars in additional tax revenue and resulting in up to 1,200 permanent jobs. He said if a casino works in Chicago, there is no reason other communities shouldn't get one.
"I think we can certainly make the case that there are other communities in the state of Illinois who could also benefit from such a license," Eisenhauer said. "Danville being the poster child of that."
House Republican Chad Hays of Catlin echoed Eisenhauer's sentiment, saying downstate border communities are just as worthy of a gaming license.
"I find that kind of statement by the Governor to be very unfortunate," Hays said. "I certainly would hold out hope that if there's going to be an expansion, people south of I-80 would not be left out. I don't think the people south of I-80 would be appreciative, and I certainly don't think they would forget."
Danville's immediate dreams for a casino were dashed earlier this year when a gaming expansion bill failed to make it out of the Illinois House. That effort included five communities poised to get a casino, which Quinn called top heavy.
"We're not going to do that," he said. "I will never support that. It's way too much. I told all the legislators, Democrat and Republican, House and Senate, that having the doors wide open and anything goes, that's just not the way to go."
Skokie Democrat Lou Lang said he plans to introduce a gaming expansion measure next week in the Illinois House of Representatives that includes Danville.
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn says Illinois could be a leader in creating start-up companies.
On Friday, Quinn announced the "Illinois Innovation Network" in an invite-only event for leaders of high-tech firms.
The network is designed to help entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. The idea is to connect them to free or discounted advice in areas like legal matters, real estate and business development.
"The best way to fight poverty, the best way to fight crime, the best way to keep families together is a J.O.B. - a job," Quinn said. "We want to work together as a team as a family to make things happen in Illinois."
Brad Keywell, founder of Chicago-based Groupon, is chairing the network. Keywell said that in the past 25 years, the single largest creator of new jobs in the Midwest has been businesses 5 years old or less.
The website for the Illinois Innovation Network is expected to be launched Friday afternoon.
During the same event, Quinn also announced that Illinois will be the first state to partner with Startup America - a national effort to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)
Hoping to cement their control of the Illinois House, Democrats on Friday released a plan for new legislative districts that would shuffle Republicans into unfriendly territory while making the most of Democratic strongholds.
Under the Democratic proposal, many Republicans would be thrown together in new House districts and forced to decide whether to challenge a colleague or run elsewhere.
Some districts are drawn to be as Republican as possible, ceding those seats to the GOP but freeing up other territory that would be friendlier to Democratic candidates.
Other proposed districts would consolidate Democratic areas. The Springfield and Decatur areas, for instance, are now represented by Republicans but the new map would carve out the most Democratic parts of the region and link them, creating a district likely to turn blue.
The proposed House map may have placed at least two east central Illinois Republicans in the same district. Chapin Rose of Mahomet and Bill Mitchell of Forsyth currently live in what would be a new 101st district that would push west into Macon and McLean County. A large part of Rose's current district, including southern Champaign County, would be in the 102nd district, while further south, Mattoon and Charleston would be in a transformed 110th district.
The plan for House districts comes a day after Senate Democrats released a similar proposal for their seats. A plan for new congressional districts is coming soon.
Political boundaries have to be redrawn after each census to reflect population changes. The result shapes Illinois politics for a full decade.
Democrats control the Illinois Legislature, so they should be able to pass whatever they want without taking Republican concerns into account. Gov. Pat Quinn would be likely to sign any plan sent to him by his fellow Democrats.
When given the chance over the years, both parties have drawn legislative maps that helped their candidates and hurt the other side. Still, House Republicans said they hoped this year's bipartisan cooperation on the state budget would have carried over to redistricting.
Instead, they see the Democratic proposal as so unfair it could complicate resolution of the budget and other legislation.
"When they stick it to you, you can't just completely set that aside," said Rep. Sidney Mathias, R-Buffalo Grove.
Democrats released the proposal after the House had adjourned for the weekend. They provided no details on the racial or political composition of the new districts.
They plan a Sunday hearing where more detail may be available and critics can air their concerns.
House Republicans are calling the map's late release disingenuous. Democrats sent it out lat Friday afternoon. House Republican leader Tom Cross said Democrats should have released the map earlier so voters could digest it before a scheduled hearing this weekend. Cross said he wants more hearings before the General Assembly votes on the new map.
The legislature is set to adjourn May 31st.
The Illinois Senate overwhelmingly OK'd prohibiting public disclosure of the names of people who hold firearm owner's cards.
The 42-1 vote Friday would overturn a ruling earlier this year by Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office that the names are public under the Freedom of Information Act.
Madigan responded after the Illinois State Police refused to release to The Associated Press the names of 1.3 million people who are registered to own firearms.
The bill goes to Gov. Pat Quinn. His office didn't immediately comment.
Sen. Kirk Dillard says publishing the names would provide a "map'' to criminals determining whose homes to burglarize.
Anti-violence groups say it would allow the public to determine whether cards have gone to people who shouldn't have them.
Some young radio producers are organizing for control of the Chicago area's only noncommercial Latino broadcast outlet.
They're upset about plans by the National Museum of Mexican Art to sell the building and license of WRTE-FM Chicago (90.5), a youth-run station known as Radio Arte that airs music and public affairs content in English and Spanish.
Transmitting at 73 watts from Little Village, Radio Arte reaches several other Latino neighborhoods of the city's Southwest Side and some nearby suburbs.
The station also trains hundreds of volunteers a year and puts dozens on the air each week. Some have formed a group to try to keep the station in their community's hands.
Many of these volunteers share a bond: They don't have papers to be living in the United States.
"Radio Arte helped me learn to fight back," said volunteer Adriana Velázquez, 20, who arrived in the Back of the Yards neighborhood from Mexico at age 11.
Velázquez graduated from Benito Juárez Community Academy in nearby Pilsen and dreamed of going to college. But her immigration status disqualified her from most financing.
"So I felt like all I had done all these years in high school - being a good student, a good member of the community - was not worth [anything] to people," she said Thursday.
Velázquez said her life changed in 2008, when she started working on a Radio Arte show, Salud: Healing Through the Arts. "That summer was when I started really talking about my status and sharing that with other students who were also going through my situation," she said.
"It was kind of a relief to feel [at] home somewhere, not feeling ashamed that I was undocumented," said Velázquez, now a music-performance student at Northeastern Illinois University.
Velázquez and the other volunteers want control of Radio Arte's name, license and transmitter. But they haven't won over museum officials.
President Carlos Tortolero said the volunteers were making too much of the museum's plans. "Radio, to a lot of funders, is old school," he said. "And we can still do radio classes without a radio station. A lot of people are streaming now online and podcasting."
Tortolero said selling the building and radio license would free up resources for projects in other media such as video and computer graphics.
The Radio Arte volunteers counter that terrestrial radio signals still reach much bigger audiences than web streaming and podcasting do. "That's especially true in immigrant and low-income communities," Velázquez said.
The license's value is not clear. Radio Arte staffers say the museum paid $12,000 for it in 1996.
Tortolero said the museum hasn't received any offers yet but adds he's talking with potential buyers, including DePaul University and California-based Radio Bilingüe. He's also met twice with Torey Malatia, chief of Chicago Public Media, the parent of WBEZ.
Interviewed Wednesday, Malatia said his organization would not have cash for the license at this point. But Chicago Public Media is preparing a proposal to "help with operations and costs," he said.
"We deeply respect Radio Arte's mission," Malatia said. "If we get involved, we would keep the tradition alive."
Malatia said Chicago Public Media would connect Radio Arte to WBEW-FM (89.5), a youth-oriented station known as Vocalo that transmits from Chesterton, Indiana. Vocalo Managing Director Silvia Rivera worked at Radio Arte for more than a decade, including three years as general manager.
If the Chicago Public Media proposal were accepted, Radio Arte likely would continue broadcasting student- and volunteer-run shows, while "primetime blocks would be simulcast" with Vocalo, according to Malatia.
"As this story gets out," Malatia added, "it puts pressure on DePaul and [Radio Bilingüe] to close the deal, and probably will pull some religious buyers into the mix."
The building, 1401 W. 18th St., houses Radio Arte's offices and studios as well as Yollocalli Arts Reach, another youth program of the museum. The wedge-shaped structure has two stories and a partly finished basement. Tortolero said the space totals about 11,000 square feet.
The museum had a real-estate appraiser look it over this month but Tortolero said his team has not set the asking price yet.
The building stands on the corner of Blue Island Avenue and 18th Street. The intersection, which includes a Mexican-themed plaza, is an anchor of Pilsen, a neighborhood whose Latino population has been shrinking.
The volunteers say they won't try to buy the building.
(Photo by Chip Mitchell/IPR)
The Champaign County board approved a 10-year district map Thursday night that was drawn by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The map seeks to magnify the impact of minority groups during elections.
The county board added two districts, which board members say will become urban areas based on population growth. The local NAACP says those two districts have an opportunity to attract a large number of minorities who can influence elections. The group's former director, Rev. Jerome Chambers, said he hopes the redistricting plan gives more people a feeling that their votes count.
"This is perhaps maybe getting finally a piece of the pie instead of the crumbs from the master's table," Chambers said. "I think it's monumental, and I'm glad to have been a part of it."
Champaign County Farm Bureau President Jerry Watson criticized the map before the vote, saying it doesn't have enough districts that are majority rural.
"Farm Bureau wants a map that will show a fair and equal opportunity of representing all citizens," Watson said. "Without four majority rural districts, that simply is not going to be achieved.
The board was expected to talk about two others maps, which were designed by the county's regional planning commission. Republican board member Alan Nudo said he was stunned there wasn't any discussion about them before the vote.
"The board had asked for three maps to discuss," Nudo said. "They wanted three maps. We didn't discuss any of them. We didn't know the merits between A, B, and C. It could have been done better. Probably the same map would have been selected, but I have some concerns about that map."
Nudo questions who actually drew the map, and said the map does not contain a majority minority district. A majority minority district is where minorities make more than half of the voting age population.
Leading up to Thursday's vote of the NAACP map, the Champaign County Redistricting Commission studied nearly 30 different maps since January. The commission had asked a planner to tweak prospective maps designed by the county's Regional Planning Commission to emphasize items like population variance, rural districts, and the so-called 'majority minority' districts.
Democratic Champaign County Board member Michael Richards, who served on the redistricting commission, said he is confident certain areas of the county will continue to elect minority candidates even if they aren't considered a majority minority district.
"The U.S. Justice Department is not concerned about whether you must have a district that is majority African American to elect African Americans in Champaign County because we've been doing it for decades," Richards said. "It's just not possible to take a square of the community that is 20,000 people and to have it be majority African American."
Richards said the NAACP map includes many of the features that are part of the county's existing district map, including three and a half rural districts, one district designed to have an all African American representation and one minority influence district with a multi-racial representation.
The map also creates a majority campus district stretching from downtown Champaign to the Illinois Street residence halls on Lincoln Avenue in Urbana.
According to Richards, the final vote for the map was 14-13, with all Democrats voting in favor of the plan except for Brendan McGinty (D-Urbana). Every Republican voted against the measure.
By the time the chosen map takes effect in 2012, the county board will be reduced by five members, and divided into 11 districts rather than nine.
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