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Thursday, March 30, 2017 12:20 am

This is basically fraud

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
I’ve been going to Statehouse committee hearings longer than I care to remember – something like 27 years. Last week, however, was the first time I can ever recall having to fight back tears during a hearing.

The House Appropriations General Services Committee heard testimony last week from Kenea Williams, a state employee who works at the Murray Developmental Center in Centralia. She has 15-month-old twins named Kobe and Kade. They were born premature, and Kobe has something called bronchopulmonary dysplasia. His little lungs are scarred and he requires supplemental oxygen just to live.

Long story short, the company that supplied the oxygen tanks for Kobe dropped out of the state’s group health insurance system because the state isn’t paying its bills during our long governmental impasse and they wanted their equipment back. Ms. Williams testified last week that Reps. John Cavaletto (R-Salem) and Charles Meier (R-Okawville) helped convince the company to continue supplying oxygen equipment to Kobe until this July.

But for whatever reason, company execs changed their minds and they sent some employees to retrieve the equipment in January. When a frightened Williams refused to answer her door, the employees apparently called the local county sheriff. Two sheriff’s deputies arrived, listened to the desperate mom tearfully plead her case and thankfully decided not to intervene. Ms. Williams has since found a new supplier for a home oxygen system.

So, think about this for a second. The state is deducting health insurance premiums out of Ms. Williams’ paychecks twice a month without fail. But there is no state appropriation for group health insurance in this fiscal year’s horribly inadequate stopgap budget, so lots of state vendors aren’t getting paid. The bill payment cycle for some of these insurance plans is currently about two years, so providers, like the company which supplied the oxygen tanks for Kobe, are understandably dropping out.

I’m told that the Illinois Department of Central Management Services played a very big role in finding another oxygen tank supplier for that little baby, who was also at the hearing last week with an oxygen tank and a tube taped under his little nose. Many kudos to everyone who helped keep that child alive, including those sheriff’s deputies.

But people, c’mon. This story, while it currently has a happy ending, is just so beyond the pale.

If a private sector company withheld insurance payments from workers and didn’t pay the money it owed to the insurance provider, the state would clamp down super hard on that employer. But Illinois doesn’t even bother paying its end, and, in fact, the state hasn’t fully funded that insurance program in years.

This is basically fraud.

Others testified at the committee last week that some dentists are demanding payment up front from state employees. So, the patients are paying for insurance, but they can’t get treatment unless they pay in advance and then, presumably sometime down the road, the insurance company will reimburse them once the companies get paid by the state. A lobbyist for the Illinois State Dental Society recently told legislators that the state owes 9,000 dentists a total of $174 million.

Let’s just hope heart and cancer surgeons don’t start making patients pay in advance.

Legislators are basically doing the same thing to the worker health insurance fund that they used to do to the pension funds. They promise good benefits at a very reasonable cost to the employee, but then don’t provide nearly enough state funding needed to make the payouts.

Only, with the healthcare fund, it’s worse. The pension funds have always had enough cushion in them to forestall an immediate meltdown. They could pay retirees without any money from the state for a while.

But the health insurance fund has a $3.5 billion negative balance. And that deficit will only continue to grow because the only money currently going into the fund is from state employee payroll deductions.

“I pay my premiums,” Ms. Williams told the House committee last week. “I do my part. Now I feel like the state needs to do their part. They need to pay their bills.”

So, how about the governor and the General Assembly get a real budget deal done before we, as a state, collectively kill a supposedly fully insured baby? Is that really all that much to ask?

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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