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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004 03:20 pm

Care less

Buried deep within Gov. Rod Blagojevich's annual budget address last week was a nasty argument with the most influential bunch of do-gooders in Illinois -- the social service providers.

These are the groups, many of them religious (like the Catholic Conference, Lutheran Social Services and the Jewish Federation), that take care of the state's most vulnerable citizens. Back in the old days, the state provided most of those services directly, but the government eventually discovered that the private not-for-profit service agencies could do it better and for quite a bit less money. The developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, alcoholics and other addicts are all cared for by these agencies.

Up until now, the state has awarded grants to these groups and then mostly washed its hands of the severe social problems they deal with. The groups are, in effect, the real "shadow government" because they spend tons of tax dollars to perform work for which the state is responsible. They also claim that the money they receive from the government is only 60-70 percent of the cost of providing the services. Nobody is getting rich off of this way of life.

The governor wants to change all that. From now on, he wants to dump the grants and pay for the programs on a fee-for-service basis. The groups would have to bid against each other and against any other new players that emerge.

The governor claims, and he's right, that it will be easier to access more federal matching funds with the new fee-for-service rules.

The opposition to the plan is basically twofold. First, the groups say that the governor is using this new "accountability" device to disguise the fact that 200,000 people would no longer receive care under his new proposal. And, second, they worry that if the governor focuses too much on costs, fly-by-night contractors could swoop in and provide substandard care and pocket the profits. In other words, somebody might try to get rich off of these programs, which could be a very bad thing.

The governor tried to cut funding to these groups last year and was twice rebuffed. At this point, it looks doubtful that he can pull off a complete victory this year, either.

The groups' natural political base is absolutely gigantic (Catholics, Lutherans, Jews and other not-for-profits connected to minority communities), and they've earned lots of respect in Springfield for taking care of the people nobody wants.

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