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Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009 10:56 am

Governor’s healthcare record a mixed Blag

What Blagojevich has done to serve the underserved

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Gov. Rod Blagojevich responded to the Illinois House of Representatives’ decision to impeach him last week in Chicago, flanked by eight individuals that the governor said have been helped by his administration’s healthcare policies.

Except for one young man identified by the governor as Omar Castillo, Blagojevich didn’t name any of the other people standing with him, nor did his Springfield press office respond to a request for information about the individuals.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s office helped Omar Castillo (third from the right) receive a kidney transplant last summer despite Castillo’s status at the time as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.
PHOTO BY PHIL VELASQUES/MCT

But a simple Internet search reveals several Chicago-area media reports about Castillo from the summer of 2008. An undocumented Mexican immigrant, Castillo found himself at the center of controversy in July when the University of Illinois at Chicago denied him a kidney transplant citing his residency status and lack of a Social Security number.

After healthcare and immigration advocates and the governor’s office got involved by enrolling Castillo in a state health plan, the hospital eventually performed the surgery with a kidney donated by his brother.

“Health care should apply to every single child — and the immigration status of that child’s mother or father is immaterial. It’s not relevant,” Blagojevich told WLS-TV in Chicago at the time.

Fast forward five months to the governor’s news conference. Castillo is again front and center, this time standing beside Blagojevich — who appears to have trouble recalling whether the donated organ was a kidney or a liver — as the governor makes a statement about his impeachment.

To even begin understanding the enigma that is Rod Blagojevich, Castillo’s story is a good place to start. In Blagojevich’s quest to make Illinois first in the nation for all things healthcare, his credo has always been that an unjust law, or administrative rule, is the same as none at all.

Blagojevich asked last week: Was helping Castillo receive that surgery despite the questions about his legal status an impeachable offense? Was it also impeachable to implement I-SaveRx, a pharmaceutical drug importation program that made Illinois, in the governor’s words, the first state to “defy the Food and Drug Administration” and the federal government?

Answering those questions and many others is now up to the Illinois Senate, which will commence a trial later this month to consider removing the governor from office. In addition to various plots purportedly hatched by the governor, including those to sell the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Barack Obama and trade official acts for campaign donations, senators must consider a number of instances in which the governor used creative means to circumvent the General Assembly.

Blagojevich freely admits that he has taken “actions with the advice of lawyers and experts to find ways, creative ways, to use the executive authority of a governor to get real things done for people who rely on us.”

But has he really gotten things done? By all accounts, poverty in Illinois hasn’t improved under his six-year tenure as governor. From 2001 to 2007, which roughly coincides with his governorship, average weekly wages fell across seven of 11 job sectors. In addition, the statewide median income declined $1,547 from 2001 to 2005, according to the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance.

Doug Schenkelberg, associate director of policy and advocacy for Heartland Alliance, says the reason the poverty picture has not improved has as much to do with the economy as Illinois’ political climate. Political infighting between Blagojevich and legislative leaders has only exacerbated the problem.

“On a broad scale, there isn’t enough of the will there to do more to bring about fundamental change,” he says. “What concerns us is that there are funding issues that the governor’s office and all parties need to deal with like deficit reduction and healthcare providers who aren’t getting paid. That those things are taking a back burner is a concern to us.”

Kent Redfield, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield agrees, but states the case more frankly: “He’s created fiscal nightmares in trying to expand healthcare.”

Blagojevich has drawn wide criticism for carving millions of dollars out of the state budget, which his detractors argue has adversely impacted social service agencies and their clients, the very groups that Blagojevich said he wanted to help.

The prospect of maintaining a career in politics grows dimmer each day for Blagojevich, who seems to have shifted into legacy-preservation mode, defending his record on healthcare and largely ignoring the 10 other points enumerated in the impeachment articles.

Redfield doesn’t believe that history will be kind to Blagojevich. “Blagojevich gets some credit for raising awareness about healthcare, but it’s pretty clear he’s been a terrible manager of state government,” Redfield says.

But Jim Duffett, executive director of Illinois Campaign for Better Health Care, believes that Blagojevich, among the past four governors, has been the most committed to affordable, accessible, guaranteed healthcare.

If lawmakers opt to remove him, Duffett says they won’t be able to blame Blagojevich anymore for standing in the way of progress on healthcare reform.

“Whatever plays out in impeachment, plays out in impeachment. For those who thought that the governor was a major roadblock, then there will be no more excuses,” he says.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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