Illinois Public Media News
A Champaign group committed to fair and reasonably priced health care has filed a complaint against its own insurance carrier.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers says premiums for its five staff members have gone up about 25-percent on average over the last 4 years. Executive Director Claudia Lenhoff said the group's complaint before the Illinois Department of Insurance against PersonalCare also contends the provider is discriminating based on age and gender. Lenhoff said when contacting the company, she's told that the higher premiums are based on usage.
"You see the higher charges for females compared to males, and they usually say that that's because women are going to have more medical expenses, if they're going to have babies and so on," Lenhoff said. "All the women on staff have never had any children. That doesn't effect our usage. And so, we think that these are pricing schemes that PersonalCare has been able to get away with."
Lenhoff said the higher rates have put her organization in financial jeopardy. The group's Allison Jones says her employer is now paying more than $520 month for her coverage.
"I really feel like they're destabilizing my job," she said. "They're putting my job at risk. I see the numbers and I know how much the salary is for someone who works in a non-profit. I feel really greatly that 100% of my insurance premium is paid for. But I know that's just a ticking time bomb. It's not going to last forever."
Meawhile, Lenhoff said her staff is getting a number of calls from others in the community also using PersonalCare whose rates have gone up considerably. She says this and other complaints will prompt the Department of Insurance to contact insurance companies, and let them know they're monitoring their rate increases. And a bill going before an Illinois House committee next week would give that department review authority over rates. Urbana Democrat Naomi Jakobsson is a co-sponsor.
Nearly 200 University of Illinois Urbana campus graduate workers affected by a payroll glitch can receive emergency grant money this semester.
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university is temporarily raising the cap on that program, so anyone impacted will be able to recoup what they were losing by the university's failure to collect taxes on tuition waivers the last seven years.
Revised figures show about 170 grad assistants were impacted, but Kaler said only six are to receive no pay over the next three months. One hundred ten of them will see a pay reduction of 10-percent or less. Graduate Employees Organization spokesman Christopher Simeone said he is happy to see the U of I stepped up and took the blame.
"We felt from the beginning that although this is a series of accidents that this was ultimately the University's responsibility," Simeone said. "We felt that it was unjust to hand down the consequences of the mistakes unto least able to bear those consequences."
Kaler said the cap for emergency grants is being temporarily increased to $2,200 this semester, allowing to recoup what would have received over the next three months. Students are normally limited to $500 a semester through the grants.
Kaler said there are other situations in which others students would apply for the grants.
"You do not have to be a GA or a PGA to apply for this program," she said. "If for example, you have a job on campus and you also have a job in the community somewhere and you've lost your job, you would be a candidate to apply for this."
Grant forms are being made available in the next couple of days, with the money expected with seven to 10 days. When the payroll error was discovered, some graduate workers indicated they would have to withdraw from school. Simeone said he can't verify that anyone did, but says members of the GEO were 'very scared'.
He said the union is still concerned about future problems regarding tax withholdings, and is working with the U of I to help plan members' budgets. He said the GEO is also trying to contact US Senator Dick Durbin's office about potential revisions to federal tax law.
Two officials from Urbana's sister city in the African country of Malawi were scheduled to wind up their trip here Thursday night with a reception at the home of University of Illinois President Michael Hogan. It was the last major event in what's been a busy week for Charles Kalemba and Mussa Mwale of Zomba. Kalemba is Zomba's chief executive officer --- similar to a city manager --- and Mwale is his administrative director.
Kalemba said he hopes the meetings he's had this week in Urbana can lead to constructive projects between the two cities --- and between the University of Illinois and Zomba's Chancellor College campus of the University of Malawi. He also said he welcomes the personal contacts he's made.
"Let me say that we've also found out the friendliness of the people," Kalemba said. "We actually, from day one till now, been meeting people, friendly people, discussions, interested to know what Zomba is all about, what Malawi's all about, what Africa's all about."
During their visit to Urbana, Kalemba and Mwale have received the key to the city from Mayor Laurel Prussing, and presented gifts to city council members. They attended a Rotary Club meeting, a concert at the Krannert Center, toured local schools, and met the public during a Wednesday night "Malwai Mixer" at the Urbana Civic Center on Wednesday that attracted several dozen residents.
It was at the Malawi Mixer especially that Kalemba says he met many potential visitors to his city.
"A lot of people now are I think, aware of the (sister city) relationship," Kalemba said. "And a lot of people are now saying, what can we do to go? So I think Dennis and Scott are the ones who are going to coordinate here to see how best we start this. Because I think there's a lot of response, these few days we've been here."
Scott Dossett and Urbana Alderman Dennis Roberts serve on the Urbana Sister Cities committee, and have both visited Zomba --- several times, in Roberts' case. They say they hope to organize another trip of Urbana residents to Zomba later this year.
The Zomba-Urbana sister city relationship comes under the auspices of the group Sister Cities International. Officials from the two cities attended the group's national conference in Arlington, Virginia last weekend.
Zomba has more than twice the population of Urbana, but about the same land area. Besides being home to Chancellor College, Zomba is the capitol of Zomba District, and the former national capital of Malawi. Urbana residents are already working with people in Zomba on water and sanitation projects funded by a grant from Sister Cities International.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Dossett)
Quinn Signs Law to Collect Online Sales Tax
Illinois consumers may find themselves paying sales taxes on some Internet purchases under a new state law.
Wisconsin lawmakers voted Thursday to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers, ending a heated standoff over labor rights and delivering a key victory to Republicans who have targeted unions in efforts to slash government spending nationwide.
The state's Assembly passed Gov. Scott Walker's explosive proposal 53-42 without any Democratic support and four no votes from the GOP. Protesters in the gallery erupted into screams of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" as Republican lawmakers filed out of the chamber and into the speaker's office.
The state's Senate used a procedural move to bypass missing Democrats and move the measure forward Wednesday night, meaning the plan that delivers one of the strongest blows to union power in years now requires only Walker's signature to take effect.
He says he'll sign the measure, which he introduced to plug a $137 million budget shortfall, as quickly as possible - which could be as early as Thursday.
"We were willing to talk, we were willing to work, but in the end at some point the public wants us to move forward," Walker said before the Assembly's vote.
Walker's plan has touched off a national debate over labor rights for public employees and its implementation would be a key victory for Republicans, many of whom have targeted unions amid efforts to slash government spending. Similar bargaining restrictions are making their way through Ohio's Legislature and several other states are debating measures to curb union rights in smaller doses.
In Wisconsin, the proposal has drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the state Capitol for weeks of demonstrations and led 14 Senate Democrats to flee to Illinois to prevent that chamber from having enough members present to pass a plan containing spending provisions.
But a special committee of lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly voted Wednesday to take all spending measures out of the legislation and the full Senate approved it minutes later, setting up Thursday's vote in the Assembly.
Walker has repeatedly argued that collective bargaining is a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront the budget cuts needed to close the state's $3.6 billion deficit. He has said without the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
The measure forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum. It also requires public workers to pay more toward their pensions and double their health insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker.
Police and firefighters are exempt.
Heading into the Big Ten tournament, Illinois coach Bruce Weber has questions.
Will Jereme Richmond's banged-up shoulder hold up? Can he count on slumping guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul for at least tough defense in Friday's game against Michigan? Will Demetri McCamey's solid form of the past few weeks last?
But Weber figures, surely, there's at least one thing he doesn't have to question -- what happens to Illinois (19-12, 9-9 Big Ten) after the conference tournament is done.
If Illinois isn't in the NCAA tournament, "I would be dumbfounded, to be honest," Weber said, counting off the tough non-conference opponents the Illini faced this season -- Texas, Maryland, North Carolina and Gonzaga among them. Illinois beat the last three and took Texas to overtime.
Then again, the Illini were stunned a year ago when they were left out of the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. Their record then (19-14, 10-8) was even a little better as far as conference play goes.
This season, Weber said, the Illini went through a tougher schedule with last year's snub in mind.
If games against Texas, North Carolina and the rest don't get the Illini into an expanded tourney that now includes 68 teams, "I will totally change my mindset of scheduling philosophy, I promise that," he said.
Illinois has rebounded in recent weeks from a midseason slump that saw them slide out of the Top 25 and into the middle of the Big Ten pack. McCamey's game in particular fell off and losses to Indiana, Penn State and Northwestern piled up like failing grades on the Illini report card.
Since then, the Illini sandwiched wins over the Hoosiers and Iowa around a close road loss to Purdue.
The team that won those games, Weber said, looked a lot more like the one that handled North Carolina than the one that couldn't buy a key basket when it needed one at Indiana.
"We had the puzzle pretty well put together early; it got messed up," Weber said. "Now we're putting those pieces back into the puzzle."
The biggest piece of that puzzle is McCamey..
The senior guard, even with his midseason slump, is Illinois' leading scorer with 15 points a game. And no one on the roster can run the offense the way McCamey can -- his 6.1 assists a game are second in the conference, behind the Wolverines' Darius Morris.
McCamey traces his problems -- and his team's -- to a tentative streak he believes is behind them.
"I think I've just got to be aggressive," he said, adding that the Illini were often slow to get into transition during their slump. "We are a real dangerous team when we get out in transition."
Weber said his other questions still need to be answered.
Richmond, the first player off the bench for Illinois, is playing with pain in his injured shoulder but will have to be a factor for the Illini if they're going to get past Michigan (19-12, 9-9).
Paul and Richmond, Weber said, could be important, too. Paul is one of Illinois' only options for spelling McCamey -- and when he's on, the sophomore guard can be a dangerous shooter. Richardson, meanwhile, will likely have a lot of the defensive responsibility for Morris.
"Morris is kind of the head of the group," Weber said. "A Steve Nash-like player that wheels and deals and sets up everyone else.
A former death row inmate is applauding Governor Pat Quinn's decision to abolish the death penalty for a couple of reasons.
Randy Steidl spent 12 years on death row, and 17 total years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of a double-murder in Paris, Illinois. Since his release, Steidl has been an active opponent of capital punishment, citing irreversible errors made in the justice system, but he said life without parole is ultimate punishment.
"Five minutes on that gurney, and your suffering is over with," Steidl said. "I believe if you really want to punish somebody, you put them in cage for the rest of their life where they can think about the crimes they committed. And when they die, they can burn in hell. And you don't risk the possibility of executing an innocent person."
Steidl said even if prosecutors do everything by the book, there's still the possibility of them making a mistake. And as for his own case, Steidl said there are people who are more interested in winning than justice.
A University of Illinois graduate student who developed an automatic gear shifting mechanism for manual wheelchairs is this year's winner of the Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize. Mechanical engineering student Scott Daigle was to formally received the $30,000 prize at a ceremony Wednesday evening on the Urbana campus.
Daigle said his invention helps users of manual wheelchairs who risk chronic shoulder pain and even injury, from constantly pushing the back wheels of a wheelchair. He compares his "IntelliWheels" gearshift to the gearshift that a bicyclist uses to handle different terrains and speeds.
"The IntelliWheels system achieves that same goal, by automatically sensing what the user is doing," Daigle said. "How hard they're pushing, how fast they're going, what kind of hill they're on, and intelligently selecting the best gear for the job."
But Daigle said the most important result of the IntelliWheels wheelchair is that it helps wheelchair users better maintain their independence.
"We're not asking them to rely on big heavy motors or big batteries," he said. "It's an easier way of keeping your mobility in a manual wheelchair."
Daigle said his IntelliWheels wheelchair is still in the testing stage. Meanwhile, he is also working on other devices for wheelchair users, such as an emergency toolkit and what he calls "castor-skis" to go on a wheelchair's front wheels to get around on snowy winter sidewalks.
Daigle is doing the research through his IntelliWheels comany, formed with partners that include U of I PhD. candidate student Marissa Siebel, the athletic trainer for the U of I wheelchair athletics team. The company operates out of the EnterpriseWorks Technology Business Incubator at the U of I Research Park in Champaign.
Daigle said he plans to invest his Lemelson-MIT prize money into IntelliWheels. The Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize is one of four prizes in the Lemelson-MIT student program, which rewards outstanding work by student inventors.
The chairman of the board of NPR said the views that the network's chief fundraiser expressed to a hidden camera do not reflect the views of others at the organization.
Chairman Dave Edwards told local public radio station reporters through a conference call Wednesday that the taped and edited comments of Ron Schiller "bothered me the core." A fake Muslim group created by conservative activist James O'Keefe met with Schiller to offer a donation. They secretly recorded him referring to Tea Party supporters as racist and uneducated. Edwards, who manages public radio station WUWM in Milwaukee, said Schiller's views do not match any views he has ever heard from NPR board members, management or employees.
"I found them to be absolutely repulsive to the values that we have as an industry," Edwards said. "And we have to articulate the fact that that is not who we are ... that we welcome a variety of viewpoints and we don't discriminate against anyone's particular view or political position."
After further research, NPR grew suspicious of the group, and refused any donation. Edwards said it was typical to have such research done after a face-to-face meeting with a potential donor. He had no comment on an Associated Press report that PBS had also been contacted by the O'Keefe group, but had declined to meet with them in the first place.
The release of the secret recording of the meeting led to Ron Schiller's accelerated resignation, plus his resignation from a job he was about to take at the Aspen Institute. In addition, NPR president Vivian Schiller --- no relation --- was also forced to resign.
Edwards said Ms. Schiller was not directly responsible for the network's recent controversies, but he said NPR needs a leader who can both manage its resources and be an effective spokesperson. NPR General Counsel Joyce Slocum has been named as interim president and CEO.
A candidate for Danville mayor said he has no intention of dropping his campaign following a discussion with an opponent.
David Quick said he was offered help paying for his campaign if he would abandon his own and join Jim McMahon's effort. Quick said he was offered $28,000 dollars in campaign funds. And Quick said a job offer from McMahon was for an unspecified position within the city or Vermilion County.
Quick said he is not sure what impact their brief discussion will have on the race.
"(McMahon) is now saying he was extending an offer to join the first place with the last place, wanting to combine the funds," Quick said. "People have to make up their own decision. They have to make up their own minds. It was a tough decision to make the decision to come forward, but I owe it to myself and I owe it to the people supporting me to let them know what was said."
McMahon said he made a 'business decision' when making the offer to Quick to merge campaigns, but denies offering him a job. Another mayoral candidate, Danville Alderman Rickey Williams Jr., has said he was offered the position of Vermilion County treasurer through a McMahon supporter.
McMahon denies it, saying he considers that notion 'ridiculous' since current treasurer Sue Stine was re-elected and does a good job.
The three candidates for mayor face incumbent Scott Eisenhauer on April 5th.
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