The Courier-News

Kane County Board OKs health department cuts

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

GENEVA — Kane County Health Department employee Silvia Vega works with women who have extensive needs and helps them get basic services such as medical care and family nutrition — services that the mother of two may need herself following Tuesday's county board meeting.

Vega became one of the "human consequences" when the Kane County Board voted 18-8 to discontinue nine social service programs and transfer their clients to other social service agencies, eliminating 62 jobs from the health department payroll.

A Family Case Management worker, Vega knew the day was coming, but said nothing really could prepare her for the reality of losing her job.

"You want to believe people will make educated decisions and look at the facts," she said from the stairs of the Kane County Government Center. "It totally brings you down."

Clients from the health department's Family Case Management, Women Infants & Children (nutrition assistance), Peer Breastfeeding Promotion, Teen Parent Services, Health Works, Dental Sealants and Vision and Hearing programs will be absorbed by three Federally Qualified Health Centers — Greater Elgin Family Care Center in Elgin, Visiting Nurse Association of Fox Valley in Aurora and Aunt Martha's Youth Service Center in Carpentersville and Aurora. Two other programs no longer being funded by the state — ARRA Immunization and Pandemic Flu Response — and will end completely.

Big budget woes

Tuesday's vote culminated a monthlong debate among county board members and in the community over health department Executive Director Paul Kuehnert's recommendation that the county stop accepting grant agreements with the state of Illinois for services provided to Kane County residents because the county cannot depend on the state to reimburse it for services rendered.

Fifty percent of the health department's budget comes from grants and, of that, 60 percent are state grants, Kuehnert said. Not only does Illinois already owe the health department $1.3 million, it is cutting funding to some of those programs. For example, Family Case Management is being cut by 4.5 percent, he said.

Illinois is facing major budget problems, entering its new fiscal year $13 billion in the red. Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn cut $576 million from the Department of Human Services, which funds many of the programs that Kane County's health department provides.

The state's budget woes are continuing and could have a negative effect on the county's health department, Kuehnert said. The situation also gave the health department the impetus to restructure itself to focus on core, mandated services such as emergency preparedness and programs for high-risk infants, he has said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing Kane employees, argued that the county could not justify the layoffs or discontinuing services. Union staff representative Carla Williams said the health department never requested expedited funds from the state and did not explore every avenue to keep the services going.

"We continue to question why it was so necessary to move forward when it's not a financial necessity," Williams said.

The union was scheduled to meet with county officials today, but Williams was not certain when the pink slips would be issued. AFSCME is considering its options, including possible legal action, if the county does not negotiate in good faith, she said.

'Hard to rebuild'

Half a dozen people — from doctors to case managers to clients — signed up to speak Tuesday, often giving emotional pleas to the board.

Dr. Dorothea Poulos of Elgin said the county did not have a health department until the late 1980s. Prior to that, private agencies provided the services now being discontinued by the county. She said it took 20 years to build the health department and that its programs have worked, pointing to a drop in Kane County's infant mortality rate from 19 percent to 5.7 percent.

"Please do not rush to dismantle these programs. It is easy to destroy, but hard to rebuild," Poulos said.

"We would like to ask you to continue to support us and the children," department client Marina Serna said through Dr. Monica Silva, a volunteer interpreter from the audience. "There are those of us who will not be able to go anywhere else. Our salaries are very, very low. We need these services for our children."

The programs will not be lost, just transferred, Kuehnert explained. He said the department will provide a hot line giving clients information on the transition.

The budget cuts will be very difficult, he conceded, noting 62 people will lose their jobs because of the reductions. But he promised to work with the union and be fair. The heads of the agencies taking over the programs have pledged to give county employees first consideration for the jobs being created, which should total between 30 and 40, Kuehnert said.

Board member Jackie Tredup, R-Elgin, summed up the feeling of many members when she said she was saddened by having to make the cuts but that the health department was turning over the programs to capable agencies.

Kuehnert said these are difficult times.

"It is one of the hardest things I've done in my career," he said. "I certainly know it has human consequences."