Thursday, November 10, 2011

Quinn hopes to slow facility closures

By Jamey Dunn 

Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close seven state facilities may soon be put on hold, but layoff notices have already gone out to some workers.

Members of the General Assembly are in talks with Quinn about shifting funds to avoid the looming closures, which Quinn had planned to implement in the closing months of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. Kelly Kraft, Quinn’s budget spokesperson, said she expects an agreement to be reached when lawmakers return for an additional session beginning on November 29. The House announced last night plans to return to the Capitol later this month to work on a business friendly tax incentive plan that didn’t gel during the time frame that legislative leaders set for the General Assembly's fall veto session.

But Quinn has not backed away from the idea of closing state institutions. The new plan calls for the shuttering up to four centers for the developmentally disabled and at least two mental health centers.

The plan would transition about 600 of the 2,000 people with developmental disabilities in state institutions to community care settings.  Michael Gelder, senior health policy adviser to the governor said the transition would take two and a half years. Once the plan gets rolling, he said, about 20 people a month would be transferred according to individual transition plans based on assessments of their needs.

“As appropriations increase, we’ll be able to maintain these facilities over the course of this year. That is our goal,” Gelder said.

Gelder said the plan could result in closing more than two psychiatric hospitals by 2014. “That would be the minimum. We think we could do more with that planned thoughtful approach working with local hospitals and working with other community base service providers to prevent emergency psychiatric admissions that are now treated in our state centers.”

Kraft said the money to keep the facilities open would likely come from Quinn’s budget vetoes, which stand because they did not come up for a vote this week, and transfers from special funds — the same funds targeted by Senate Democrats as a revenue source during their failed attempt to add spending to the budget shortly after it passed. She said federal Medicaid dollars might also be tapped.

Union officials, who represent many workers at state institutions, were not impressed with Quinn’s new plan to close facilities in a slower and more deliberate manner. “Governor Quinn is under fire for his irresponsible push to cut mental health care, force people with severe developmental disabilities out of the homes they have chosen and destroy thousands of middle-class jobs. Spreading that pain out over the coming years doesn’t make it any less wrong,” Anders Lindall, spokesperson for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said in a written statement.

The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability voted to keep all seven  facilities open. Though many members said they thought some facilities should be closed, they objected to Quinn’s rushed timeline. Republican legislators, including House Majority Leader Tom Cross, have accused Quinn of targeting facilities in Republican districts. These opponents called on the governor to slow down the process and put all state facilities on the table.

“There’s a right way to close these places and a wrong way to do it, and I thought this was the wrong way,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, an Orland Park Democrat. “We are over-institutionalized in our state. We understand that. We want to move forward.” COGFA plays an advisory role in the process, but according to COGFA co-chair Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, no governor has gone against its recommendations on a facility closure.

While lawmakers argue that they want all facilities up for consideration, many members of COGFA say that it would be impossible to close either the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln or the Chester Mental health center, which houses the criminally insane. “There are two facilities I think that we just couldn’t close, and it’s incumbent upon us to find the resources. One is Chester, one is Logan [Correctional Center in Lincoln,]” Rep. Michael Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican, said at a previous COGFA hearing. “[Chester is] the only maximum security facility for the criminally insane and those who are not fit to stand trial. … These are not the kind or prisoners that we should put in Alton [Mental Health Center] or any other facility.”

The proposed plan to close Logan, which Schoenberg said “defies imagination,” involves housing prisoners in the gymnasiums of other prisons.

The new tack described by Gelder did not focus on correctional facilities, although Quinn’s original plan called for closing Logan and the Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro. “We would rather spend less on maintenance of institutions and more on the people who are served in [them.] So we will move ahead with a planned thoughtful approach — stopping admissions, initiating assessments and completing care plans and transition plans that will enable us to serve and meet the needs of the people that we all want to meet wherever they are in the state,”Gelder said . “We will work with the General Assembly…to identify the facilities and prioritize those facilities. Not everybody is going to agree.”

Although members of Quinn’s administration say he wants to put the breaks on closures, the state sent out layoff notices earlier this month to 200 employees of the Tinley Park Mental Health Center. The layoffs would be effective December 3. Kraft said if legislation to shift funds is passed soon, it would save those workers’ jobs, but the state is obligated by law to give them layoff notices because the money is not there to pay them. If a plan is not approved soon, about 160 workers at the Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford would be the next to get pink slips.

Kraft said there are no plans to reinstate 21 Department of Agriculture employees who have already been laid off under the original closure plan.

COGFA co-chair Rep. Patricia Bellock said hearings held throughout the state on the proposed closures helped to raise awareness among lawmakers about the need to give more patients access to community based care. “Besides the 12 members of COGFA, at all those hearings, the local legislators were there. So now you have 35 or 40 legislators who are familiar with this process in Illinois of institutionalization and are ready to move forward with the [Quinn] administration on this in a serious way,” said Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican.

She added, “This will not go away.”

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