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Editorial: Gov’s Medicaid cuts get to what’s morally right

Updated: May 21, 2012 8:53AM

Gov. Pat Quinn is just about the last person you’d expect to cut health services for the poor.

His career has been built around helping the little guy.

So when Quinn finally decides it’s time to put forward a list of painful cuts that he and other do-gooders acknowledge will hurt, but will ultimately help keep afloat the safety net for the poor, we’re going to back him up.

Likewise, when Quinn says the cuts can only go so far without shredding that safety net, and proposes a modest increase in the cigarette tax to make up the difference, we’re also going to back him up.

It’s time for the members of the General Assembly to do the same.

On Thursday, Quinn made good on a promise to wring an astonishing $2.7 billion out of the state’s $14.2 billion Medicaid program. If the state flinches, Quinn says, the Medicaid system could collapse under a mound of debt.

No one thinks he’s exaggerating.

“We’re beyond the crisis stage,” said the Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall. “Now we’re in the ‘how do you avoid collapse’ stage.” Msall praised Quinn for “exerting his leadership in identifying a reasonable plan to save Medicaid.”

Quinn’s proposal calls for nearly $1.4 billion in cuts — including eliminating health care for poor single adults, ending adult dental care, reducing prescription coverage and scaling back so-called “optional services” such as adult occupational and physical therapy. Most of these cuts were vetted by a bipartisan legislative group convened by Quinn.

Another $675 million will come from across-the-board rate cuts, a proposal that should be modified to make sure true safety net hospitals take less of a hit. The final $675 million will come from a $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax and an accompanying 100 percent federal matching grant. No one likes a tax increase, but this one features the public health benefit of discouraging smoking and would draw $338 million in new federal money to Illinois. When making this revenue projection, the governor’s office says, it factored in the fact that the tax hike would reduce cigarette sales.

Predictably, state Republicans leaders reject the cigarette tax, saying the entire $2.7 billion should come from cuts and reforms.

We say: Show us the way. Many of the cuts and reforms proposed by Quinn are long overdue, such as kicking people out of Medicaid who are no longer eligible. And some program eliminations will be reversed when (and if) the federal health-care law is fully implemented.

But many of the cuts are not driven by goals of efficiency or good policy. Some services are being reduced or eliminated because Illinois is broke. Real people — poor folks in nursing homes, the state’s mentally ill — will be hurt.

Keeping that pain to a minimum, and ensuring that the right cuts are being made, should be the Legislature’s focus now as it turns Quinn’s proposal into passable legislation. Fighting over a modest tax, even one that has minor downsides, when the alternative is denying poor people their medications, is absurd.

Quinn’s plan is financially right for Illinois. And it is morally right.

Every pol in Springfield should follow those two bright stars.

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