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Capitol Recap: Health care, pretrial interest, elections bills pass both houses

Capitol Recap: Health care, pretrial interest, elections bills pass both houses

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A bill to expand the use of vote-by-mail and curbside voting in future elections passed the Illinois Senate Thursday, meaning it needs only a signature from the governor to become law.

House Bill 1871, which was approved by the House last week, would revise the state election code to make permanent some of the changes that were widely adopted across Illinois for the 2020 general election in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the bill is sent to the governor and signed quickly enough, it would take effect immediately, possibly in time for the April 6 elections.

The changes include allowing election authorities to install drop box sites where voters can submit mail-in ballots without postage during and on Election Day. The bill also permits curbside voting where people can fill out ballots outside the polling place during early voting and on Election Day.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Julie Morrison of Lake Forest, would also require election authorities to accept mail-in ballots with insufficient or no postage.

The bill states that ballots turned in after the close of business “shall be dated as delivered the next day, with the exception of ballots delivered on election day, which shall be dated as received on election day.”

Thomas Bride, executive director at Peoria County Election Commission, said this provision was carried out in his county by installing a locked cover on the drop box by 7 p.m. on election night.

The bill passed out of that committee on partisan lines Wednesday and advanced to the Senate floor for a vote, where it was approved on a bipartisan roll call with 48 votes in favor and seven against.

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HEALTH CARE REFORM: A massive health care reform bill, the fourth and final pillar of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus agenda, passed the state Senate Thursday, the final step before heading to Gov. J.B. Pritzker for a signature.

House Bill 158 aims to address access to health care, hospital closures, managed care organization reform, community health worker certification and reimbursement, maternal and infant mortality, mental and substance abuse treatment, and medical implicit bias.

HB 158 passed with a 41-16 vote after revisions to the original version, which failed to pass in January’s lame duck session.

The new version of HB 158 eliminated provisions that would have replaced the state’s Medicaid managed care program with a standard fee-for-service payment system.

A last-minute amendment, which enhanced dementia training requirements for the Illinois Department on Aging, was also added before HB 158 went for a full vote in the House last week. It passed the House with a 72-41 vote.

Most of the items included in the bill are subject to state appropriation, meaning future General Assemblies will have to decide whether to allocate the money to fund them.

House and Senate Republicans shared concerns about the total cost of implementing this legislation. In the Senate floor debate, Republican Sen. Steve McClure of Springfield said he doesn’t believe the state can afford to implement all the provisions in the bill

Another significant provision in HB 158 would put a halt on hospital closures for up to 60 days after the effective date of the act, which is an effort to prevent hospital closures in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Closures are also deferred until either the state or U.S. are no longer under disaster declaration or public health emergency.

HB 158 would also create a Health and Human Services Taskforce and an Anti-Racism Commission to make recommendations for tangible solutions to be enacted by hospitals, health care organizations and the General Assembly as the conversation and analysis of racial inequities in the health care system continue.

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PRETRIAL INTEREST: The Illinois Senate passed a bill Thursday to allow victims in personal injury and wrongful death cases that reach a verdict to collect interest on money they receive from court, with the intent of incentivizing settlements in these cases.

Gov. Pritzker vetoed an earlier version of the bill that was approved by both chambers in the January lame duck session.

The current version of the bill, Senate Bill 72, will now head to Pritzker’s desk for his signature after passing the House last week.

Senate President Don Harmon, who sponsored the current version of the bill, said the purpose is to level the economic playing field in personal injury and wrongful death cases in which the defendant — or the entity being sued — is usually a hospital or health care provider. Most often, the insurance company representing the entity being sued will cover the costs of the defense in court.

Meanwhile, Harmon said, the plaintiff — or the person who is suing the entity — often faces loss of income while he or she awaits the verdict.

“This simply tilts the scale a little bit in favor of a prompt settlement of a meritorious (personal injury or wrongful death) claim. It encourages the settlement,” Harmon, D-Oak Park, said.

SB 72 reduced the amount of interest charged from the previous version of the bill, from 9% to 6%. It would only apply in personal injury and wrongful death cases that reach a verdict. It passed the Senate Thursday, 37 to 17.

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VETERANS HOMES REPORT: A joint report from two state agencies and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found Illinois’ four state-run veterans homes lack standardized infection prevention policies despite previous audits suggesting they be implemented.

The report from the Interagency Infection Prevention Project, or IIPP, calls for the facilities to create a new infection control position and increase staffing and training.

The goal of the IIPP is to “support an integrated and comprehensive response to COVID-19” at the state’s veterans homes, according to the joint report of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and USDVA.

The report references the May 2019 audit issued after the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the Quincy Veterans Home that made similar findings about the lack of uniform policies across facilities and the need to create them.

But, when the pandemic hit Illinois in March 2020, those policies had not been enacted.

“Following the audit in 2019, the Senior Home Administrator retired. The task of creating an integrated Infection Control Program was deferred while that position remained open. Some of the Veterans’ Homes have updated their infection prevention policies, independently of one another, since then,” according to the joint report.

“Standardized policies and procedures, as recommended in the 2019 audit, are needed as one part of an infection prevention program,” the report continued.

The IIPP report makes six broad recommendations for improving the response to COVID-19 and other potential viral outbreaks at the four veterans’ homes.

First, the report recommends the facilities “develop and implement system-wide policies, procedures, and practices for infection prevention,” and “create a position for a Senior Infection Preventionist and establish a new, system-wide Infection Prevention Committee.”

The second recommendation is for facilities to “expand system capacity for infection prevention.”

This recommendation includes providing staffing levels based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, such as at least one full-time position for each facility with more than 100 beds.

The third and fourth recommendations advise that the facilities “broaden and deepen the perspective of the infection preventionists,” and “strengthen staff-wide training.”

Lastly, the report recommends facilities closely monitor compliance with the infection policy, including compliance with PPE guidelines and hand hygiene, and establish collaboration among top management and frontline staff to problem solve and develop strategies for infection prevention.

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UNEMPLOYMENT UPDATE: First-time unemployment claims fell sharply last week as both the state and national economies have begun gradually reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security said Thursday that 15,595 Illinois workers filed initial claims for regular unemployment benefits during the week that ended March 20. And while that number would normally be considered high, it was down 78% from the week before. It was down 88% from the same week a year ago, at the start of the pandemic, when more than 126,000 people filed first-time claims.

That decline was in line with a national trend. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that the total number of initial claims nationally fell by more than 42,000, to 241,745.

IDES also announced Thursday that the state’s preliminary unemployment rate dropped three-tenths of a point in February to a seasonally adjusted 7.4% as the economy added 21,100 nonfarm jobs. Those numbers reflect activity for the week of Feb. 12.

That rate was 1.2 percentage points higher than the national rate and it was 3.8 percentage points higher than February 2020, just before the pandemic forced a shutdown of major parts of the economy.

The biggest job gains in February were in the leisure and hospitality industry, which added 32,300 jobs. That sector was among the hardest hit during the pandemic because of restrictions placed on bars and restaurants, hotels, airlines and the cancellation of many conventions. Compared to a year earlier, the sector was still down by more than 185,000 jobs.

The US president takes questions from reporters on a wide variety of issues, including migration, China, COVID vaccines and voting rights.

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COVID-19 UPDATE: Gov. Pritzker received a COVID-19 vaccine and briefly took questions from reporters at the Illinois State Fairgrounds on Wednesday as the state’s seven-day rolling average COVID-19 positivity rate ticked up to its highest point since Feb. 11.

The 2.8% case positivity rate represented an increase of 0.3% from the day prior and 0.7% from its low of 11 days earlier – a 25% increase in that span. There were 1,261 hospital beds in use for COVID-19 as of Tuesday night, roughly level from the day prior but a 14% increase since March 12. There were 269 intensive care unit beds in use by COVID-19 patients and 130 ventilators, both near their highs of the month.

The 2,793 new confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 diagnosed over the previous 24 hours marked the highest one-day total since Feb. 11. That made for a 3.5% one-day positivity rate as 79,381 test results were reported.

Pritzker received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, a one-dose shot that is being more widely distributed across the state, he said.

As of Wednesday, more than 5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Illinois, while 66% of seniors and 32% of Illinoisans 16 years of age and older had received at least one dose. The seven-day rolling average for vaccine doses administered was 97,680 as of Wednesday.

The state is scheduled to expand vaccine eligibility to all residents age 16 and over on April 12. Appointment information can be found at coronavirus.illinois.gov or by calling 833-621-1284.

“Look, I'm not a doctor, but I trust doctors. And thanks to the great work of our doctors, researchers, and public health scientists, these vaccines offer us all the fastest way back to normal life,” Pritzker said, telling the public “I'm not asking you to do anything that I wouldn't do myself,” before receiving his vaccine.

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BRIDGE PHASE: Last week, Gov. Pritzker announced a “bridge” phase between the current COVID-19 capacity limits and Phase 5, in which all capacity limits are lifted. The bridge phase can begin when 70% of seniors are vaccinated, provided COVID-19 transmission and death trends do not reverse.

Per the bridge phase, the largest capacity increase is to social events, which can allow 250 people indoors and 500 outdoors. Previously, those were capped at 50 people. Ticketed recreation events are allowed to hold 60% of the facility’s capacity.

Restaurants and bars can increase capacity from 25% to 30%, and outdoor capacity is allowed up to 50% for standing areas. In seating areas, parties of up to 10 are allowed and different parties must be seated 6 feet apart.

Most other capacities at businesses would increase to 60%.

Per a news release from the governor’s office, to advance into the bridge phase, the entire state must maintain a 20 percent ICU bed availability rate and “hold steady on COVID-19 and COVID-like illness hospital admissions, mortality rate, and case rate over a 28-day monitoring period.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said Wednesday the Illinois Department of Public Health website was being updated Wednesday to better demonstrate where the state stands on the metrics that could disqualify it from entering the bridge phase.

On Wednesday morning the website showed hospitalizations were trending upward, but it did not appear that the state was meeting the 150 new daily admissions threshold that would warrant a reversal of entering the bridge phase. A spokesperson for IDPH told Capitol News Illinois they were checking on the public reporting of new hospital admissions as of Wednesday afternoon.

While the governor’s office said in a news release that announced the bridge phase that “all regions of the state will move through the bridge phase and ultimately to Phase 5, together,” the governor said Wednesday regions may revert back to previous phases individually if they see a surge.

The governor said he is keeping an eye on the increasing positivity rate, particularly as new variants continue to become more prevalent as the virus mutates.

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RENT CONTROL BAN REPEAL: The House Committee on Housing on advanced a bill Wednesday that would allow local municipalities to implement measures regarding rent control.

House Bill 116, introduced by Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, would repeal the state’s Rent Control Preemption Act of 1997 and enable local municipalities to impose caps on rent prices.

Guzzardi said the rent control repeal would aim to give more “flexibility” to local municipalities in order to make their own decisions regarding rental costs.

“This law that’s on the books right now preempts every municipality in the state of Illinois from passing any ordinance that would constrain in any way a landlord’s ability to raise the rent by any amount,” Guzzardi said.

Guzzardi said he first tried to introduce the measure four years ago as a result of ongoing gentrification efforts in the area he represents in Chicago, which includes the neighborhoods of Logan Square and Portage Park.

Guzzardi told the committee that he had heard stories from low-income constituents who saw their residential units purchased by developers who subsequently increased their monthly rent by as much as 25 to 50%.

He said the rent increases were used as “a means of displacing” low-income residents in favor of higher-income individuals who could afford the higher rents.

“I believe in my heart that it’s possible for a municipality to craft an ordinance that would allow landlords to increase rents by modest amounts to keep up with things like property tax and maintenance while also preventing the types of abuses I just described,” Guzzardi said.

Proponents of the legislation, including advocates from the Lift the Ban Coalition, said that small landlords and low-income tenants are being “threatened” by economic forces in areas like Chicago.

Opponents of the legislation said repealing the blanket ban on rent control would impose unnecessary burdens on landlords and developers who manage multiple properties around the state. Those property owners would have to follow a “patchwork” of differing rules regarding rent as result, they argued.

Opponents also argued that the legislation does not address the underlying causes of housing insecurity in the state such as high property taxes and access to affordable housing stock.

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PRISONER SETTLEMENT: The Illinois Department of Corrections and a number of elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners seeking early release from state prisons due to COVID-19 reached a settlement Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the inmates against the department.

Under the settlement, IDOC agreed to “identify and evaluate medically vulnerable prisoners for release through legally available mechanisms.” The settlement also calls for the department to apply good behavior credits to inmates who are eligible for those credits and have at least nine months left on their sentence.

Inmates with at least nine months of their sentence remaining who are considered low-risk will receive 60 days of good behavior credit, while those considered medium-risk will be awarded 30 days credit.

The application of credits is expected to begin within the next 30 days, the court document states.

Amanda Antholt, one of the attorneys representing the prisoners, said the settlement will likely impact up to 1,200 inmates across Illinois prisons.

Department of Corrections officials have the option of offering eligible prisoners medical furloughs, electronic home detention and early release.

Medical furloughs, which Gov. JB Pritzker expanded under an executive order last year, are defined as a “temporary leave of absence from secure custody for limited medical purposes for offenders who, because of a medical condition, are determined to be either of limited physical mobility or terminally ill.”

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ECONOMIC EQUITY BILLS SIGNED: Gov. Pritzker signed a package of four bills Tuesday that made up the “economic access, equity and opportunity” pillar of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus.

Speaking at a bill-signing ceremony at the Union Baptist Church in Springfield, Pritzker said the legislative package would go a long way toward addressing the harms caused by “systemic racism” that has prevented people of color from gaining full access to jobs, housing, state contracting and credit.

The four bills all passed during the General Assembly’s lame duck session in January. Among them was Senate Bill 1480, which restricts the ability of employers to use a person’s criminal history in making hiring decisions.

Also included in the package was Senate Bill 1608, which raises the goal for state contracting with minority-owned businesses to 30%, instead of 20%. It also establishes a new Commission on Equity and Inclusion within the Department of Central Management Services, to monitor and make recommendations for enforcing diversity requirements in state contracting.

Charles Harrell, president and CEO of the Information Technology Architect Corp., a Black-owned IT company based in Chicago, said stronger enforcement of those rules has been lacking for years.

The new law also creates the Illinois Community Reinvestment Act, which sets new standards for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to examine low- and moderate-income lending by state-chartered banks, credit unions and non-bank mortgage lenders.

Another bill that was part of the package was Senate Bill 1792, which, among other things, caps the effective interest rate lenders can charge on pay day loans and other small-dollar consumer loans at 36 percent, the same limit that applies under federal law to loans made to active duty service members.

The final bill in the package was Senate Bill 1980, which prohibits public housing authorities from considering a person’s criminal history when deciding whether to rent or lease a housing unit to an applicant, unless it’s required by federal law.

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EDUCATION REPORT: The Illinois Education Association, one of the largest teacher unions in the state, on Tuesday released its third annual state of education report examining attitudes towards public education in Illinois.

The poll, conducted by Normington Petts and Next Generation Strategies, surveyed 1,000 different Illinois adults of varying backgrounds and regions of the state by phone or online.

One of the main takeaways from the poll, according to IEA, was that nearly 8 in 10 adults believe the COVID-19 pandemic has made teaching and learning more difficult.

When it comes to the biggest impact of the pandemic on students, 44% said virtual learning challenges are the leading concern, while 29% said it's the lack of socialization.

IEA President Kathi Griffin said virtual learning has also had an impact on teachers, who are now expected to teach students both in-person and virtually at the same time.

One-third of IEA members who were polled in October stated that they were considering leaving the profession, while two-thirds said they felt “more burned out than normal this year,” according to the report.

Of the 1,000 Illinois residents participating in the poll, 60% said they worry that educators leaving the profession will lead to lower student performance.

The poll found that 43% of adults believe health and safety are the most important issues to address as schools begin to return to normalcy. Getting students caught up, 22% of adults said, is the second leading concern.

As a result of the pandemic, the IEA and the Illinois Federation of Teachers will be introducing legislation to: establish clear metrics for districts to know when it’s safe to be in-person; enforce COVID-19 guidance and requirements in schools; provide rapid COVID-19 testing in schools; and provide protections so teachers won't be forced to work while they're sick.

The poll stated each of those principles without mentioning any legislation specifically, then asked if the respondents strongly favor, somewhat favor, strongly oppose or somewhat oppose the principles. Per the results, 43% said strongly favor, 36% said somewhat favor, 10% said somewhat oppose, and 7% said strongly oppose. Five percent did not know.

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INMATE VOTING: A bill that would repeal an existing law that prohibits prison inmates from voting is working its way through the General Assembly, although the chief sponsor of the bill says it’s only one part of a broader process to restore voting rights to prisoners.

House Bill 1872, sponsored by Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, was the subject of an informational hearing in the House Ethics and Elections Committee Monday.

“This bill will not actually give the right to vote,” Ford said. “There's a process by which that takes place.”

Under current law, no person who has been convicted of a crime in Illinois, any other state, or in a federal court who is serving a term of confinement in any penal institution is allowed to vote. That includes inmates who are on furlough or in a work-release program, but it does not include people who’ve been released on parole or people being held in pretrial detention.

Their right to vote is only restored once they have been released or paroled from prison.

Simply repealing that law, however, would not, by itself, restore the right to vote for inmates because Article 3, Section 2 of the Illinois Constitution also prohibits prison inmates from voting.

Still, voting rights advocates said it was important to begin the process by repealing the statute.

Michael Ross, a Marine Corps veteran, said the issue was also important to veterans because 8-10 percent of the estimated 30,000 people held in state prisons have prior service in the armed forces.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill, but Republican Rep. Patrick Windhorst, of Metropolis, raised the question about whether a constitutional amendment would be needed to actually restore voting rights to inmates.

Ami Gandhi, Senior Counsel at Chicago lawyers committee for civil rights, said the constitutional prohibition on inmates voting was an important part of the discussion. But she added, “this bill is a necessary part of providing the right to vote for community members who are currently disenfranchised.”

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SOLIDARITY WITH ASIAN AMERICANS: Less than a week after a deadly attack on Asian Americans in Atlanta, Gov. Pritzker and members of the General Assembly’s Asian American Caucus on Monday spoke out against the murders and against discrimination generally toward the Asian American community.

“I do not pretend to know the pain of this moment, for those who look at the Atlanta victims and see their own mothers, daughters and sisters, or themselves,” Pritzker said at a news conference Monday in the Chinatown neighborhood in Chicago. “But I want the (Asian American Pacific Islander) community in Illinois to know that I see you, and I see the fear and anxiety that these events have forced into your lives and the lives of your loved ones, and I want you to know that Illinois is your home. You are our friends and our neighbors and our family members, and I will do everything in my power as governor to protect you and to welcome you.”

Pritzker was accompanied by members of the Asian American Caucus, including Democratic Reps. Theresa Mah of Chicago, Janet Yang Rohr of Naperville, Denyse Wang Stoneback of Skokie, and Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Democrat from Chicago, among others.

Yang Rohr said the acts of violence at spas in Atlanta on March 16 that left eight dead, including six women of Asian descent, come amid escalating tensions and hate throughout the past year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The 21-year-old suspect, who was arrested after the fatal shootings, confessed to the crime and remains in custody on charges of murder and assault.

“Let me tell you, our community, your friends, your neighbors, your family, we are reeling from this in a year when every single one of us has had to deal with increasing isolation, increasing deaths,” Yang Rohr said. “We, in our community, have had to proceed more carefully, more fearfully, as we've had to watch leadership from the highest levels of our country use pointed and deliberate words of hate to put targets on us, hateful words and hateful language.”


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