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updated: 4/18/2012 9:08 PM

Legislative committee can't agree on Medicaid cuts

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Associated Press

A bipartisan group tasked with cutting the state's Medicaid budget by $2.7 billion failed to come up with a plan by a deadline this week and now Gov. Pat Quinn intends to move ahead with his own proposal, committee members said Wednesday.

The committee mulled over a list of 56 potential ideas that add up to only about $1.4 billion in cuts to the health insurance program that serves nearly 3 million poor and disabled Illinois residents. Those ideas include eliminating Illinois Cares Rx, which helps nearly 200,000 seniors get prescription drugs, limiting prescription drugs and cutting tangible benefits like visits to chiropractors.

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But committee members told The Associated Press shortly after meeting Wednesday that they disagreed on bigger points such as a potential $1-a-pack cigarette tax increase and rate cuts to health care providers. The Quinn administration floated those ideas to the committee earlier this month and they likely will be included in the Medicaid proposal Quinn is expected to deliver Thursday.

"We have not agreed on a final proposal," said Republican state Rep. Patti Bellock of Hinsdale, a member of the committee. "The governor is going forward. He wants to go forward with something."

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson declined to give details about the governor's proposal, but said it was informed by ideas offered by the committee.

"They've been working on laying out all the options," she said.

Illinois faces intense fiscal problems, including unpaid bills of roughly $8 billion, a massively underfunded state pension system and rising Medicaid costs. The governor has vowed to accomplish Medicaid and pension reforms this year.

In his February budget address, Quinn told the bipartisan Medicaid group to come up with a plan by April 17, saying the program was "on the brink of collapse." But the committee's disagreements -- including philosophical approaches to what services are optional -- underscore the difficulties in cutting the program. Major reforms also may prove especially difficult in an election year.

Quinn issued another stern warning to legislators this week, saying his "intention is to restructure Medicaid whatever time it takes."

"Members of the legislature should be prepared to cancel their summer vacations in order to get this mission accomplished," he said at an unrelated news conference Tuesday. "We cannot allow the current system to continue in its present form. It'll implode."

Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat on the Medicaid working group, said the committee's work isn't done. She said a meeting is planned for next week and the committee will consider ideas to ensure feasibility even after the governor makes his proposal public.

"Everyone agrees we want a $2.7 billion solution," she said.

State Sen. Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat, says committee members have discussed adjusting cost-of-living increases. Suggestions include temporarily suspending annual pension increases to help the state catch up on the $80 billion funding gap in its five pension systems or scaling COLA increases to an employee's length of service.

Other ideas include raising the retirement age, demanding greater employee contributions and requiring the state to pay annual pension obligations before anything else.

Noland said they have not specifically addressed asking local school districts to pick up employer contributions for their teachers that the state now pays, an idea Quinn has discussed in the past.

"The work has largely been done. The practical considerations are well understood here," Noland said. "Now it becomes more of a political discussion."

Meanwhile advocacy groups have been bracing for proposed cuts and are worried about the impact on the elderly, poor and disabled.

"It's going to be really bad," said David Vinkler of AARP. "People who really need help ... start choosing between food, drugs, and paying their bills."

He added the cutting some benefits could lead to increases in other costs, like emergency room visits.

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