Righter, Brady work on Medicaid, pension issues

SPRINGFIELD — Two central Illinois senators may have a lot to say about any Medicaid and pension reforms enacted by the Legislature this year.

In his budget address Wednesday, Gov. Pat Quinn noted that Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, is serving on a Medicaid working group with three other legislators, along with Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos. And Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, is one of four legislators on a pension working group with two of Quinn's top aides.

Quinn said the state must cut $2.7 billion in expenditures from the state Medicaid program in the year beginning July 1.

"Medicaid spending must be restructured to keep the system alive and well," Quinn said in his budget address. "This is not something we can blithely delay for another year."

He was equally adamant about the need for state pension reforms this year, setting an April 17 deadline for the working group to submit its plan to him.

"We need to do pension reform in a way that's meaningful, constitutional and fair to the employees who have faithfully contributed to the system," Quinn said. "We can do this in a way that does pass constitutional muster. But everything has to be on the table."

Brady, who was Quinn's gubernatorial election opponent in 2010, said pension revisions could be accomplished "but we're going to need some help on the second floor (where the governor's office is located)."

He said Quinn's announced state facility closures, including prisons at Dwight and Tamms, "puts us a little bit more at odds in terms of bringing about cooperation" with state employees unions.

"I'm a little bit concerned about the direction that he's taken here, but ... we'll continue to work on a solution that benefits the taxpayers, ensures that we can hire good people who can count on a pension and run the state properly," Brady said.

The pension group has been working for several weeks, Brady said, "and bringing his staff up to speed." He said he has been pleased "with their willingness to work on the issue, but it's going to take leadership from the governor.

"You don't solve big problems like Medicaid and pensions by giving a speech, walking down to your office and expecting the Legislature to come up with solutions. This state gives a great deal of power to the governor through its constitution. He's had four years at this. He needs to exercise that power and provide the leadership we need."

Righter said he "is more than willing to help" Quinn try to fix the Medicaid program which the governor said "is on the brink of collapse."

But the veteran lawmaker said he still was skeptical that Quinn would be willing to go along with slashing $2.7 billion from the $14 billion program.

"He needs to remember that any bill that gets to his desk, he's got to sign it. And if it's not $2.7 billion then he needs to say this isn't enough. Now I'm ready to do that," Righter said. "The question is whether or not he's willing to do it and whether the (Democratic) party that has doubled the size of the Medicaid program in 10 years, whether or not they're ready to do that. You're talking about some incredibly difficult choices here."

In order to reach $2.7 billion in savings, Righter said, "you're talking about eliminating every optional service, almost all of the populations the federal government does not require us to cover and cutting rates. I'm not sure how many legislators understand what that means, particularly in the majority party, and once they understand that, are they going to be willing to do what's right to save the whole program?"

Righter said that without changes to Illinois' Medicaid program "we run the risk of the program imploding, nursing homes closing, hospitals closing, providers in other areas walking away in droves. That's what they risk if they're not willing to take those tough votes."

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