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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 07:47 am

Illinois laying off 18 medical regulators

Agency asking for cash infusion and fee increase

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Seven state workers in Springfield could lose their jobs at the end of the year as regulators scramble to cover the increasing cost of overseeing doctors in Illinois. That’s because the fund that pays for doctor regulation and discipline is expected to dry up this month, forcing the layoff of 18 regulatory workers total in Springfield and Chicago.

After those layoffs, only eight workers would be left to regulate the tens of thousands of doctors currently licensed to practice in Illinois. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulations, which regulates doctors and numerous other trades in Illinois, currently has 26 workers devoted to licensing, investigating and prosecuting doctors. Seven workers in Springfield could be laid off at the end of the year, along with 11 in Chicago.

The entire department is funded by licensing fees paid by the professionals it regulates, but DFPR says the fees for doctors aren’t high enough to cover the cost of regulating.

“We just can’t maintain current staff levels,” said Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for DFPR. The department wants state lawmakers to increase the licensing fee for doctors, which hasn’t increased since 1987. “Things cost more money now. We have to pay more than we did in 1987 and we’ve had additional responsibilities put on the department.”

While DFPR pushes for higher fees, the Illinois State Medical Society says higher fees could drive new doctors out of Illinois.

In a presentation given to lawmakers, DFPR states the layoffs could force delays in licensing of doctors, delay investigations of misconduct allegations against doctors, and allow fewer hearings held to discipline doctors who may have done wrong. That means a rogue doctor could operate longer before being caught and punished.

Doctors in Illinois currently pay $300 for a three-year license. The department started asking lawmakers in 2007 to increase the license fee to $600, citing higher costs and more functions regulators have to perform. DFPR projects the Medical Disciplinary Fund, which pays for doctor regulation and is funded by the licensing fee, will dry up in December.

To make the case for increasing the fee, DFPR says Illinois doctors would still pay less to renew a license than many other professions, and the total cost would be less than in many other states.

The Illinois State Medical Society opposes the fee increase.

Dr. William Werner, president of ISMS and a doctor of internal medicine at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, says medical schools in Illinois train thousands of new doctors each year, but more than half of new doctors leave the state. Werner warns that increasing fees for doctors could drive more new doctors away from practicing here. He also says many retired doctors who still do charity work may stop if it costs more to remain licensed.

“It would be a shame to drive those doctors out because they can’t afford a fee increase,” Werner said.

Even if the fee is increased immediately, the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation wouldn’t see many proceeds until 2014 because doctors are on a three-year licensing cycle. The department is currently seeking an infusion of cash from other funds to sustain the medical regulatory unit in the meantime.

The Medical Practice Act, which provides a regulatory framework for doctors in Illinois, has a built-in sunset provision and must be renewed periodically. Last week, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill extending the law for one year, but Werner says it used to be renewed in 10-year increments. He says lawmakers should return to that longer renewal period to provide stability in the medical industry. Until that happens, ISMS can’t even consider supporting a fee increase, he says.

“Every time the renewal comes up, we get the discussion of whether we should raise the fee,” Werner said. “It would contribute to the unfriendly environment we have in Illinois if the fee is increased. We don’t want to drive more doctors out of Illinois.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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