Doctors will be asked to pay more in fees under a bill House lawmakers sent to Gov. Pat Quinn on Thursday, with the money earmarked to speed up the licensing process and strengthen efforts to discipline bad physicians.
The governor has vowed to sign the measure, which would give a cash infusion to the state agency responsible for regulating physicians. A funding shortfall led the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to lay off 18 employees this year, which resulted in a major delay in processing licenses and not enough people to go after doctors who misbehave.
“Right now, they’re hard pressed to do anything in that arena because there are no resources in the department,” said sponsoring Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. “This is a crisis.”
As of March 1, the agency had a seven-week backlog for processing completed new applications, said spokeswoman Susan Hofer. Already practicing physicians had been told to expect delays of up to 18 months to renew a license, meaning many would be unable to practice as they waited on the paperwork. Doctors and hospitals feared staffing and training problems.
The legislation increases fees from $300 to $700 for a three-year license. Those rates would stay in place until 2018, when the cost would drop to $500. The money would be used to immediately hire 18 workers. Because fees had not increased since 1987, the agency has been spending about $1.8 million more than it was collecting.
Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, called the situation a “disgrace” that “gives us the perception that Illinois can’t shoot straight, we can’t do anything right.”
Lawmakers noted the importance of the timing of the vote, which came a week before Match Day, when medical school graduates across the country learn where they will spend their residencies.
Dr. William Werner, president of the Illinois State Medical Society, said his organization was not opposed to a fee increase but differed on the amount. He argued the agency chose layoffs despite having $2 million in its Medical Disciplinary Fund.
“We are fully supportive of the idea that the functions of both licensure and discipline are important to our profession,” Werner said. “If there are problems, we want them investigated. We are not objecting to having a reasonable fee for that.”
Supporters say the legislation is aimed at ensuring schools practice what is known as “universal precaution,” which calls for assuming that all students could be infected. The idea is that some students may not know they have a blood borne illness, so staff and medical professionals should always use extreme caution to prevent a possible transmission.
“Treat everyone as carriers,” said sponsoring Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago. “If we fail to do that, we put every child, every teacher, every faculty member at jeopardy of contracting HIV and AIDS.”
Ford, who has been indicted on federal bank fraud charges, said the measure would also prevent children who have HIV or AIDS from being discriminated against because all students would be treated equally. Opponents argued the proposal could lead to children accidentally transmitting diseases because school officials could not take preventive measures, such as separating a student who has HIV or AIDS from one that might be prone to biting.
Health officials contend the disclosure law, which was passed in the late 1980’s, creates a false sense of security. The Illinois Department of Public Health supports the repeal, according to a spokeswoman who said advances in medical science have greatly increased the understanding of how HIV is transmitted.
House lawmakers also voted 65-7 for a measure that would limit how much salary state employees could use to base their pension benefits on. Under the legislation, the limit would be set at $113,700 and adjusted for inflation. Those who have already been paid more would still be able to base their pensions on the higher salary, but future raises could not boost benefits. Retirees would not be impacted by the proposal, which sponsoring Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Chicago, said would save the state retirement systems $1 billion.The proposal was the first amendment attached to a bill that House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Riverside, is using to test out support for various pension reform ideas. Legislators overwhelming shot down several more extreme proposals during a similar effort last week.