Illinois Lawmakers Debate Universal Health Plan

Published October 1, 2003

A push is underway in the Illinois General Assembly to move the state toward the establishment of a universal health care system.

House Bill 2268 would create a bipartisan Health Care Reform Commission (HCRC) to oversee the gathering of comments from the public and recommendations for a universal-access health care plan. The bill received bipartisan support and this spring passed the Illinois House of Representatives 60-45.

The senate version of the bill (Senate Bill 1430) passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee but is now stalled in the Rules Committee.

“I don’t think this issue is going to go away,” said Senator Barack Obama (D-Chicago), the senate bill’s chief sponsor. “This probably won’t be dealt with during the fall veto session, but I think it will come back in the next general session in January.”

The bill does not describe a specific plan. The HCRC, operating under the auspices of the Illinois Department of Public Health, would develop a plan based on comments from the public. The process would occur over several years and in three stages.

Hearings and More Hearings

In Stage One, the HCRC would hold at least 10 public hearings in different geographic locations around the state over a span of several months. The HCRC, working with an unnamed research firm, would consult with health care providers, health care consumers, and others to assist in the development of the plan.

A final report would be presented by the HCRC to the governor and General Assembly on February 1, 2005. The bill says the report shall be based on the public meetings and shall include a comparison analysis of different proposals submitted by interested parties.

In Stage Two of the process, the HCRC would hold 10 more public hearings in different geographic locations to obtain opinions on the proposed plans submitted at the end of Stage One. Those hearings are to be concluded by October 31, 2005.

The bill also requires the commission to ensure that residents throughout the state are informed about the different plan proposals under consideration, including the content of each proposal and the impact each may have on the quality, cost, and availability of health care services.

Stage Three of the measure currently under consideration requires that by February 1, 2006 the HCRC must recommend a plan or plans. The General Assembly must pass enabling legislation for the chosen plan before June 1, 2006. Implementation of the approved plan must occur by January 1, 2007. Those deadlines likely would be adjusted if legislation moves forward in future sessions of the General Assembly.

“The bill was agnostic about what tools might be used to achieve universal care,” Obama said. “The commission would determine how to do it. We could adopt a Canadian single-payer option. Or we could adopt a plan like [Congressman Richard] Gephardt’s, a mix of expanding Medicaid and providing tax credits to employers. Or it could be something else.”

Obama says part of the function of the bill is to spark a debate “to see what we can do at the state level.” According to Obama, “After a five-year timeframe, the act would require the General Assembly to at least vote up or down on a recommended means of providing universal health care. Obviously, that is a contentious piece of legislation because there are still significant players in the health care business that are resistant to reform or the notion of universal health care.”

Already Universal

One of those players is Dr. William Dam, an Illinois physician and member of the Illinois State Republican Central Committee. Dam said he opposes the legislation and hopes key Republicans and conservative Democrats will work against passage of the bill in the senate.

Dam said that in a sense, Illinois and the rest of the nation already have universal care by requiring hospitals and doctors to provide treatment to persons who need emergency care. He pointed to a colleague of his who recently performed surgery on a man who had no insurance and showed up in a hospital emergency room with life-threatening peritonitis, the result of a burst appendix.

“This was a complex surgery, followed by at least a week in the hospital with intravenous antibiotics,” Dam said. “That doctor will get paid not one dollar. There is universal health care. People like this show up for treatment, we provide it and then eat the cost.

“Our legislators are spineless in addressing this issue where it has to be addressed,” Dam said. “They’re spineless to say, ‘We have this much money,’ and prioritize. That means an intravenous drug user who’s destroyed his liver [should have] to wait behind others to get a liver transplant. Nobody in Illinois has the guts to say that.”

Steve Stanek is a freelance writer and contributor to several news sources. His email address is [email protected].