Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday March 6th, 2015, 5:13pm

Illinois Advocacy Groups Unite To Protect Medicaid From Rauner Budget Cuts

Health advocates and service providers vowed to ramp up pressure against Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner Friday, specifically taking aim at his proposal to slash the Medicaid program next fiscal year by $1.5 billion, during a "Medicaid and Budget Advocacy Summit."

About 200 people attended the summit, held at the Chicago office of SEIU* Healthcare Illinois Indiana. The union co-hosted the event with the AIDS Foundation Chicago, Campaign for Better Healthcare, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Citizen Action Illinois, Heartland Alliance, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, among other groups.

Organizers said the summit, which included a panel discussion on the governor's budget plan and breakout sessions about advocacy strategies, marks the start of a "long campaign" by the various groups seeking to put a human face on Rauner's proposed Medicaid cuts and influence lawmakers to opt against balancing the budget on the backs of vulnerable residents and working families. 

Illinois faces a $6 billion budget deficit in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, as well as a $1.6 billion shortfall in the current budget. In addition to Medicaid cuts, Rauner's $31.5 billion spending plan for next fiscal year, which is about $4.1 billion less than the current budget, would significantly slash funding for higher education, immigrant services and other critical programs. The governor's budget does not call for increased taxes.

Advocates, who are taking to Twitter with the hashtags #KeepILhealthy, #MedicaidNow and #NoCuts, say it's time for Rauner to "stop talking about cuts and start talking about revenue."

Those at the event pledged to testify at upcoming state appropriation hearings, lobby in Springfield for new revenue solutions over cuts, and share stories with the media of those who would be impacted if Rauner's proposal is put into action.

Dan Lesser, director of economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, said Rauner's budget blueprint is just the start of the "struggle" that advocates are up against.

"He's going to be governor for four years, and this stuff is not going to stop," he said. "This is going to continue, and we've already seen he's resourceful. He's willing to use all the different tricks that are out there for a governor to get his way ... That's why we got to get organized now."

"It's going to take a movement to stop him," he added.

As part of the "Protect Medicaid" campaign, organizers said they will work to disprove "misinformation" surrounding Medicaid, particularly claims that the program is "wasteful and inefficient." Summit leaders pointed out that per-person Medicaid spending in Illinois is among the lowest in the nation.

"The important thing to keep in mind is that as a state, we actually cut the Medicaid program three years ago in 2012 by $1.1 billion," noted Nadeen Israel with EverThrive Illinois, formerly the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition. "That was the largest cut that any state has ever made to their Medicaid program in one year. And so, we've sort of slimmed down to as much as we can when it comes to Medicaid."

Also speaking on the panel was Samantha Olds, executive director of the Illinois Association of Medicaid Health Plans.

Cuts to Medicaid -- the federal-state health care program for the poor, elderly, and disabled -- impact "everybody," she stressed, not just those who are recipients.

Medicaid "creates jobs and drives the economy," Olds noted, adding that "cutting a program that influences the entire economy means you are influencing and impacting every single Illinoisan."

Under Rauner's budget, a total of $19 billion in spending would be allocated to the Medicaid program, which covers more than 3 million Illinoisans. The administration wants to save $41 million by moving some people off state medical assistance and onto the health insurance marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act.

Non-mandatory Medicaid programs for renal dialysis as well as adult dental and podiatry services would be eliminated under the Republican's budget, according to EverThrive Illinois' analysis of the fiscal plan. Additionally, the budget proposal seeks to end exceptions to the four-prescription limit for psychotropic drugs. Among other controversial cost-saving proposals, Medicaid eligibility under the Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program as well as the state's hemophilia program would end if Rauner's plan is approved.

"Our populations are going to be sicker as a result of these cuts," stressed David Munar, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Howard Brown Health Center, which primarily serves the LGBT community. "We're going to see increases in chronic disease and in manageable diseases and in infectious diseases."

The state will also face "unavoidable" increases in emergency room visits and in-patient care if Medicaid is slashed by $1.5 billion, Munar said.

"That's a real cost that's going to be borne on the state and on all of us eventually," he said. "Sicker people will cost more. It's just that simple."

Moreover, Rauner's budget, if approved, would likely result in a "substantial spike in premature deaths," Munar said, adding that 4,000 of the Howard Brown Health Center's patients, many of whom are living with HIV, rely on Medicaid. "This is real. All of our populations are very sick. Their health is tenuous at best. They're living day-to-day. Just a little pressure can mean somebody just does not make it to the emergency room."

Commenting on the governor's proposed budget as a whole, Larry Joseph, director of the Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children, called the fiscal plan "dishonest," explaining that "many of the cuts are hidden" and "details on many of the cuts are not available."

Joseph pointed out that Rauner's blueprint depends on $2 billion in savings from changes to pensions that have a slim chance of passing in the legislature. And if the changes were approved, they would likely face a court challenge.

"By doing this, the governor is hiding $2 billion more in cuts that will be needed" absent new revenue, he said. "The cuts we see on paper actually way understate the potential impact on Medicaid, on human services, on a whole range of programs that serve vulnerable populations unless we have new revenue."

*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.

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