Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 08, 2011

Questions Continue Over New Health Plans

Criticism and confusion continues with the Quinn administration's proposed health plans for state employees and retirees in the next fiscal year.

The proposal would remove Urbana-based Health Alliance from the mix, raising difficulties for patients who use doctors at Carle, Springfield Clinic and McDonough District Hospital in Macomb. Those hospitals and clinics have exclusive HMO contracts with Health Alliance (a Carle subsidiary).

Instead, HMO coverage for state employees would only be offered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois which has no primary care physicians under HMO contracts in the Champaign County area. A spokesman for BCBS says they do not have HMO providers in every county.

But a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services says there are other options in their proposals --- namely the open access plans offered by HealthLink and PersonalCare. Mike Claffey says those plans offer medical coverage at different levels. He says Tier 1, the least expensive, works like an HMO. Claffey says it's his understanding that Champaign-based Christie Clinic is part of the provider network at Tier 1 levels in the open access plans, while Urbana-based Carle is available at the more expensive Tier 2 and Tier 3.

State Representative Chapin Rose says the proposed health plan lineup goes before a legislative advisory panel in Springfield on Monday. And Rose says he thinks the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability is predisposed to approve the proposal. The east central Illinois Republican says the commission needs more accurate numbers on the new health plans --- numbers he says won't be available until after Health Alliance files its formal protest.

"Filing their protest is what gives them the cost document they need to officially disprove these cost issues," Rose said. "If the (commission) votes on Monday, they will be voting without the actual real numbers to prove or disprove what's going on."

Meanwhile, an organizer with Champaign County Health Care Consumers is urging state employees not to panic. Anne Gargano Ahmed says if the state's decision is approved, it should give Carle the incentive to negotiate with Blue Cross Blue Shield for HMO coverage.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 08, 2011

Workers Brace for Effect of Government Shutdown

A weather forecaster says he may have to live off the money he's been setting aside for a Caribbean vacation. A worker in Washington hopes to polish his resume so he can retire from public service and work in the private sector. An accountant wonders if she can put off her mortgage for a month.

Federal workers like them across the U.S. will be out of work and without a paycheck if the looming government shutdown isn't averted. Some say they will make the best of it, using the spare time to get a few things done. Others are far more fearful of how they'll provide for their families.

The partial shutdown, which could start at midnight Friday, leaves workers with many questions - some serious, others more mundane: How long, if at all, will they be away from their jobs? Who will be deemed "essential" and be told to come to work? Should I cancel the kids' daycare? Will I still be able to afford that pre-planned vacation?

About 800,000 federal government workers would be affected by a shutdown.

The ripple effects stretched far beyond the Washington metro area, where so many federal employees work and live, to places like Chicago, where more than 100 people facing no paychecks protested outside a federal building with signs, "Don't Punish the Public" and "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out."

National parks would close, and the IRS would not process paper tax returns. But the nation's federal prisons would remain open and air traffic controllers would report to work, as would federal inspectors who enforce safety rules.

In Little Rock, Ark., National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Koch said he worries about how a shutdown could affect his family, including his two children. He said he'd still report to work for business as usual - but he wouldn't get a paycheck until the shutdown ended. He's putting more into savings to prepare, he said.

"I was actually saving up for a Caribbean cruise, but that money may actually be used to live on. It's certainly more important to make sure we can get the bills paid and provide for our family," he said.

Others saw opportunity.

John Haines, 64, has worked for the federal government more than 35 years. His duties as deputy director of the office of community renewal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development keep him busy all day long - leaving him little time to prepare for his transition to a new job in the private sector. He said he's been meaning to update his resume for some time.

"I guarantee you if I'm not coming to work Monday morning that I'll have more energy to do the kind of work that I should have done already" to prepare for the future, he said.

Haines wasn't even sure if he could count on a three-day weekend. He was headed to a seminar this weekend in North Carolina and hoped to visit a son there who serves in the National Guard, but he didn't want to miss work Monday if his office was open.

"So I'm not doing any planning beyond the immediate future," he said.

In Salt Lake City, home to about 12,300 federal employees, Leslie Steffs was applying for new hospital positions. The 55-year-old single mother, an administrative assistant assigned to the downtown Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building, said she was concerned about making mortgage payments.

"Some people say we'll just have to tough it out, but I have a family to support. This is no joke," Steffs said.

That was echoed by Justin Castro, a park service worker at the Oklahoma City Bombing National Memorial.

"Not having a check means not paying rent and not paying bills that need to be paid," he said.

A sheriff on the eastern end of Rocky Mountain National Park is encouraging people to still visit. Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said he'll provide emergency services and law enforcement to visitors on the eastern side of the park within his county in the event of a shutdown.

He said merchants in nearby Estes Park whose business would be hurt by a lack of visitors shouldn't be pawns in Congress' budgetary battle.

However, Patrick O'Driscoll, a spokesman at the National Park Service's regional office in suburban Denver, said Smith's department has no jurisdiction and the park will be closed if there's a shutdown.

Limitations would not just affect the states. Aaron Tarver, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, said U.S. citizens will still have consular services if needed but passports would be limited to emergencies. In the Philippines, the U.S. Embassy in Manila would only provide limited and emergency services if a shutdown happened, spokeswoman Rebecca Thompson said.

In Chicago, one of the demonstrators was Julie Sidlo, an Environmental Protection Agency accountant who endured the last government shutdown in the 1990s. This time, she doesn't know how her job would be affected but is preparing for the worst, she said.

"I've sent an email to my mortgage company asking if I can delay payment for the next month, and gotten no response. I don't know if I can file for unemployment," Sidlo said, adding that she's set money aside for several weeks. "I've decided not to make any purchases I don't need to. I don't go to restaurants."

The government continued lurching toward a shutdown even as Congress continued negotiations to avert it and leaders expressed hope they could get a deal done. House Republicans advanced a stopgap measure Thursday that would keep the government running for another week, cut $12 billion in domestic spending and fund the Pentagon for six months. But President Barack Obama threatened to veto the bill even before it passed, and Senate Democrats showed no willingness to allow a vote on it.

Haines, who joined HUD in 1979 and before that worked for the Department of Transportation, said attrition at his workplace had pushed him to more rigorous hours. Though retirement-eligible, he's now considering private sector jobs in economic development and said the threat of a shutdown laid bare what he said was a depressing change in the way the public values government workers.

"The advantage of being a federal employee is, supposedly, job stability. You sacrifice your total pay for whatever the job satisfaction and a high degree of job security," Haines said. "That's the tradeoff, supposedly - and, supposedly, good benefits."

On Thursday, though, he wasn't so sure of that.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 08, 2011

Congressman Johnson’s Offices Prepares for Possible Govt Shutdown

The event of a government shutdown late Friday night means most of 15th District Congressman Tim Johnson's staff will be temporarily out of a job.

Fourteen workers in all would be laid off, and spokesman Phil Bloomer says he and three other staffers, including Chief of Staff Mark Shelden would remain on the job, but unpaid. Bloomer adds that there are a lot of other concerns regarding his office's daily dealings with the public.

"Our staff performs real vital services in terms of visas and passports, and helping people with their social security programs," Bloomer said. "We got dozens and dozens of other cases with the VA and social security, and otherwise."

Bloomer says he is still cautiously optimistic that an agreement will be reached by Congress tonight. He blames Congressional Democrats and those in the White House for 'dithering around' for months and allowing things to get to this crisis point.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 08, 2011

Legislation Would Bar Release of Gun Permit Info

Names of people authorized to own guns would be declared secret under legislation approved by the Illinois House.

The state police would be barred from releasing information on people who have Firearm Owner Identification cards.

The House approved the bill 98-12 Friday. It now heads to the Senate.

The attorney general ruled last month that the list of people with FOID cards must be released under the state Freedom of Information Act.

Firearm advocates objected. They argue the information would tell criminals who owns guns that are worth stealing.

The bill would allow disclosure of names in criminal investigations.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 07, 2011

Illinois Reps Position Themselves Ahead of Shutdown

With a government shutdown looming at midnight Friday night, all U.S. House Republicans from Illinois voted Thursday to fund the government for at least a week. The state's Democrats all voted against the bill.

Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Dold from the North Shore voted for the stopgap spending bill, which he says proves his party wants to avoid a shutdown.

"What we're doing right now is doing all we can to make sure we keep this budget - or the continuing resolution going so we can keep the government up and functioning for the American public," Dold said in an interview following the vote.

The bill would also fund the military through the end of the fiscal year.

The president has promised he would veto that measure, his staff pointing out it contains some $12 billion dollars in non-negotiated cuts.

Evanston Democrat Jan Schakowsky said Thursday that the onus is on Republicans to agree to a final deal.

"We have agreed to a number of pretty painful things. I'm not thrilled about what we've agreed to," Schakowsky said. "But they keep moving the goal posts, and it's clear that they are pushing for a shutdown."

Federal employees deemed "essential" can work through a shutdown. Members of Congress get to decide which of their staff fit that description. Schakowsky said she believes all her staff are essential, while Dold said he would "pare down" his team.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 07, 2011

U.S. to use Facebook, Twitter for Terror Alerts

The U.S. government's new system to replace the five color-coded terror alerts will have two levels of warnings - elevated and imminent - that will be relayed to the public only under certain circumstances for limited periods of time, sometimes using Facebook and Twitter, according to a draft Homeland Security Department plan obtained by The Associated Press.

Some terror warnings could be withheld from the public entirely if announcing a threat would risk exposing an intelligence operation or an ongoing investigation, according to the government's confidential plan.

Like a gallon of milk, the new terror warnings will each come with a stamped expiration date.

The 19-page document, marked "for official use only" and dated April 1, describes the step-by-step process that would occur behind the scenes when the government believes terrorists might be threatening Americans. It describes the sequence of notifying members of Congress, then counterterrorism officials in states and cities and then governors and mayors and, ultimately, the public. It specifies even details about how many minutes U.S. officials can wait before organizing urgent conference calls among themselves to discuss pending threats. It places the Homeland Security secretary, currently Janet Napolitano, in charge of the so-called National Terrorism Advisory System.

The new terror alerts would also be published online using Facebook and Twitter "when appropriate," the plan said, but only after federal, state and local government leaders have already been notified. The new system is expected to be in place by April 27.

The government has always struggled with how much information it can share with the public about specific threats, sometimes over fears it would reveal classified intelligence or law enforcement efforts to disrupt an unfolding plot. But the color warnings that became one of the government's most visible anti-terrorism programs since the September 2001 attacks were criticized as too vague to be useful and became fodder for late-night talk shows.

The new advisory system is designed to be easier to understand and more specific, but it's impossible to know how often the public will receive these warnings. The message will always depend on the threat and the intelligence behind it.

For example, if there is a specific threat that terrorists were looking to hide explosives in backpacks around U.S. airports, the government might issue a public warning that would be announced in airports telling travelers to remain vigilant and report any unattended backpacks or other suspicious activity to authorities.

If the intelligence community believes a terror threat is so serious that an alert should be issued, the warning would offer specific information for specific audiences. The Homeland Security secretary would make the final decision on whether to issue an alert and to whom - sometimes just to law enforcement and other times to the public.

According to the draft plan, an "elevated" alert would warn of a credible threat against the U.S. It would not likely specify timing or targets, but it could reveal terrorist trends that intelligence officials believe should be shared in order to prevent an attack. That alert would expire after no more than 30 days but could be extended.

An "imminent" alert would warn about a credible, specific and impending terrorist threat or an on-going attack against the U.S. That alert would expire after no more than seven days but could be extended.

There hasn't been a change in the color warnings since 2006, despite an uptick in attempted attacks and terror plots against the U.S. That's because the counterterrorism community has found other ways to notify relevant people about a particular threat. In December 2010, intelligence officials learned that a terrorist organization was looking to use insulated beverage containers to hide explosives. That information was relayed to the aviation industry to be watchful. Less formal warnings like that will continue under the new system.

In the past, there was no established system for determining whether to raise or lower the threat level, said James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. In part because of this, travelers heard about nonspecific orange threats in airports since August 2006 when the government responded to an al-Qaida plot to detonate liquid explosive bombs hidden in soft drink bottles on aircraft bound for the United States and Canada.

While there was coordination among U.S. counterterrorism officials about the threat, "It was pretty much kind of a gut call," said Carafano, who was on a 2009 advisory committee to review the color alerts and suggest ways to improve them.

According to the draft plan, before an official alert is issued, there is a multi-step process that must be followed, starting with intelligence sharing among multiple federal, state and local agencies, including the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the White House. If the threat is considered serious enough, a Homeland Security official will call for a meeting of a special counterterrorism advisory board. That board would be expected to meet within 30 minutes of being called, and if it's decided an alert is necessary, it would need to be issued within two hours.

"The plan is not yet final, as we will continue to meet and exercise with our partners to finalize a plan that meets everyone's needs," Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 07, 2011

Judge to Rule on Suit Against Indiana Secretary of State White ‎

A judge in Indianapolis says he'll decide Thursday whether or not Democrats can proceed with their lawsuit to disqualify Republican Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White from holding office.

Marion Circuit Judge Louis Rosenberg heard arguments from both sides Wednesday.

Democrats contend state law requires the runner-up in November's election, Vop Osili, to take office if Rosenberg rules that White was ineligible to run for secretary of state last year. Their lawsuit claims the state recount commission improperly dismissed their challenge to his election in December.

A grand jury separately indicted White in March on voter fraud and other charges alleging he voted in last May's Republican primary after moving out of his ex-wife's home and the town council district he represented. He would have to resign if convicted.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 07, 2011

Quinn Touts Update to State Road Program

Gov. Pat Quinn says the state has to spend money to ensure Illinois has safe roads and bridges.

Quinn on Thursday announced the latest update to the state road program that includes improving more than 3,200 miles of roads and replacing or repairing 611 bridges over the next six years.

He says the timing of the announcement was tied to a law that requires the state to announce its long-term road program.

Construction costs are estimated at $11.5 billion for the extensive list of projects. Money for the road program will come from federal, state and local funds.

The governor's office estimates the construction projects will create about 155,000 jobs. And Quinn says such projects are a good way to get Illinois' economy back on track.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 07, 2011

State’s Decision to Drop Health Alliance HMO Sparks Protest

Urbana-based Health Alliance says it will file a protest with the state over its decision not to continue their HMO contract for state employees and retirees.

The state Department of Healthcare and Family Services announced Wednesday it was awarding HMO contracts for the next fiscal year to Blue Cross Blue Shield, with Open Access Plan contracts to PersonalCare and HealthLink. The state said the new contracts would save taxpayers over $100 million a year, and over one billion dollars over the next ten years.

Health Alliance CEO Jeff Ingrum argues the savings aren't really there --- in part because people who had been under Health Alliance will be required to either change doctors, or go to the more expensive Open Access Plans selected by the state, or to the Quality Care Preferred Provider plan, which offers less coverage.

"One, it will increase the costs to state workers," Ingram said. "But it will also increase the costs to the state of Illinois, because those programs are anywhere from 10 to 20 percent higher than the Health Alliance HMO program."

Ingrum says Carle, Springfield Clinic and McDonough District Hospital in Macomb had signed exclusive agreements with Health Alliance that barred them from working with other state HMO plans.

In a statement, Carle says it's studying the implications of the DHFS decision. The company calls on their patients who are Health Alliance members to "share their concerns with the state and with elected officials."

The company says it will be reviewing options "for state employees to continue accessing Carle physicians and hospital services", but that the plans and costs for such access will change if the state's decision stands.

And the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services says --- in a fact sheet on its managed care announcement --- that while Carle and other hospitals and clinics may not be available through their new HMO plans immediately, it expects them to "adjust to market needs" over time.

Carle says that Carle Foundation Hospital has a long-standing contract with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, for hospital services. But Health Alliance's Ingram says the contract is for a Preferred Provider plan, not the HMO plans which the state approved its employees and retirees in FY 2012.

State Representative Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana) has complained about the state's decision not to use Health Alliance next year. She says the company was not given sufficient advance notice of the decision. Jakobsson is inviting people concerned about the change to sign a petition on her legislative website.

NOTE: This story was updated to show additional comments from the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 07, 2011

Undocumented UI Student Released from Jail After Georgia Protest

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

An undocumented University of Illinois student was released Thursday morning from an Atlanta jail after taking part in a protest to demand more rights for undocumented immigrants.

Police arrested 22-year-old Andrea Rosales and six other illegal immigrants Tuesday after they sat in the middle of a downtown Atlanta street for more than an hour. The protesters were charged with obstructing traffic. Atlanta police do not participate in a local-federal partnership that empowers local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law, so the likelihood of the students being turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was low.

Rosales says the protest was triggered by a policy Georgia's university system approved last year banning illegal immigrants from attending the five most competitive public schools in the state.

"We see that happening due to political inaction, as well as lack of support - institutionally and locally," Rosales said. "This is why we felt we needed to escalate and even risk arrest and facing being put into detention proceedings because we are tired and something needs to change."

Rosales must perform five-to-10 hours of community service. She is part of the social justice student organization, La Collectiva, which helped fund her trip to Georgia.

The protests were part of The Dream is Coming project, which was created to advocate for the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for certain young people who were brought here at a young age. It failed to pass Congress several times, most recently in December.

Illinois is one of 10 states that provides in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who attend public universities. Members of La Collectiva want Illinois lawmakers to introduce an Illinois-style Dream Act that would open up a financial pathway for more undocumented immigrants who want to attend college by setting up a private scholarship fund.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)


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