Illinois state ‘on brink of collapse’

Thursday, March 8, 2012
By Paul Martin

Illinois’ financial problems are forcing it to choose between its pensions and its teeth.

Governor Pat Quinn says the state needs to face its “rendezvous with reality” and tackle its dysfunctional budget habits. Top of the list, Mr Quinn says, is to slash spending on Medicaid, a federal programme that provides healthcare to poor Americans.

To save a system he says is “on the brink of collapse”, Mr Quinn proposes cutting $2.7bn from Illinois’ $11.5bn Medicaid bill. Few would dispute that the state needs to change its behaviour. Last year, Illinois underfunded Medicaid by $2bn as it struggled with debts totalling more than $280bn, an $86bn hole in its public pension funds and a $9bn backlog of unpaid bills.

The Medicaid tab has grown since the financial crisis, which pushed more people into poverty. In 2007, 2.1m Illinois residents were eligible for the low-income programme. Today, 2.7m qualify – 1.7m of them children, according to the state’s department of healthcare and family services.

Milona Van Kanegan, a dentist at a clinic serving poor adults in Humboldt Park, a neighbourhood in West Chicago with a high population of Latin American immigrants, says cuts could have a devastating effect on her patients. She worries that thousands of people across Illinois could be excluded from the system.

“Now, people are getting care because they are insured,” she says. “If they’re pushed out, they’ll ignore their problems and their teeth will just get worse and worse. Dental disease is cumulative. It builds up over years of neglect.”

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