The Geneva Sun

Kane health workers: Don't cut jobs, services

Employees, legislators: Let's find another solution

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ELGIN -- Laura Buchanan told a story of a 4-year-old child who was labeled with severe behavioral problems and a lack of social skills to such an extent that school officials recommended the child see a psychiatrist.
What no one knew was that the child was living in a world of silence.

A simple vision and hearing test -- which Buchanan administers through the Kane County Health Department's
Community Health division to about 6,000 children -- showed the child was deaf.

The child was able to get help, but if he had not been screened, who knows when he would have been diagnosed, she said.

It is because of children like that boy that Buchanan gathered with her colleagues Monday at a press conference at the Kane County Public Health Department's South Grove Avenue office in downtown Elgin to beg the county not to cut staff and services, including vision and hearing screenings.

Kane County board members are expected to vote this morning on a resolution by Executive Director Paul Kuehnert to reject $1 million in health-related grants offered by the state of Illinois because he fears that could cause a huge shortfall in the department's budget.

The state already owes the health department $1.5 million for services provided. The county cannot rely on the state paying the county for future services, given its $13 billion debt and slow payment process, Kuehnert told county officials last week.

Turning down the state grants would result in the department having to cut 62 jobs and nine programs, including Family Case Management, which serves 6,000 pregnant women. Other programs being cut: WIC, Peer Breastfeeding Promotion, Teen Parent Services, Health Works, Dental Sealants, vision and hearing screenings, ARRA immunization and pandemic flu response.

Kuehnert plans to restructure the entire health department to provide only those core services that are detailed in state statutes for the department to meet national public health accreditation standards. The nonmandated programs would be eliminated within 45 days, he said.

State Sen. Michael Noland and state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia pledged to help the county get its payments, saying the state recently sent the county a check for $500,000. Noland said he plans to request emergency funding for the county, but Kane County officials would need to delay the vote on Kuehnert's resolution and come to the table to work with the community, employees, his office and Chapa LaVia's office.

Noland and Chapa LaVia were critical of the county's plans for the health department.

"County government is not stepping up to the plate, much less going to bat" for families or employees, said Noland, who represents the district that surrounds the health department's office. He also injected politics into his speech by accusing Republicans of throwing social services into chaos and allowing people to get caught in the cross hairs to create frustration in a "slash and burn policy" aimed at winning the Nov. 2 elections.

Kane County's health department is not trying to work with the state and obtain funding for its services, it is simply saying "no thanks, we are getting out of providing services," said Chapa LaVia, who represents Aurora, where the health department's cuts in WIC will affect about 1,700 families.

The situation should be a wake-up call to Springfield and legislators "who were not in favor of revenue enhancement to get back to the table," Chapa LaVia said.

The more than a dozen health employees who held up signs reading "Don't Cut Vital Services" and wore buttons were not only concerned about colleagues' jobs and families, but worried about where clients would go for help.

Joe Durczak, president of AFSCME's Kane County Local 3966, said 45 days to transition programs is not enough time. Kuehnert plans to have private and federally funded agencies take over some of the services, like WIC and Family Case Management. Health department employees are worried clients will fall through the cracks or end up on waiting lists without ever getting seen.

Such programs are not core programs but vital, Durczak said, adding Kane County would no longer have a full-service health department that helps women and children.

"In the long run, this is hurting the children," Buchanan said.