CAPITOL RECAP: Higher education officials say guardianship scam is not widespread problem
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CAPITOL RECAP: Higher education officials say guardianship scam is not widespread problem

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“Governor Blagojevich should remain in prison,” Pritzker said

Gov. J.B. Pritzker stands next to Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton as he takes questions after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Illinois State Fair on Thursday in Springfield. Pritzker addressed the possibility raised Wednesday by President Donald Trump that the president was considering commuting the prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. “Governor Blagojevich should remain in prison,” Pritzker said. 

CHICAGO – Officials from several public universities in Illinois told a panel of state lawmakers Thursday, Aug. 8, they do not believe there is widespread abuse of court-ordered guardianships that have enabled some students from wealthy backgrounds to obtain need-based student financial aid.

“We don’t believe that this is a wide national scandal,” Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois, said during a special hearing in Chicago. “We saw something happening that we felt wasn’t right and we wanted to bring it to light as much as possible and correct it.”

Borst said he first became aware of the practice in May 2018 when he received a call from a high school guidance counselor asking why a particular student was being offered a university-funded scholarship that is normally reserved for students with significant financial needs.

After further review, he said, officials determined the student’s parents were still providing financial support, and the student’s financial aid package was adjusted. He said the university also forwarded the information to the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general as well as the Illinois attorney general’s office.

At the time, Borst said, university officials thought it was an isolated incident.

But in the fall of 2018, he said, he received another call from a different high school counselor describing a similar situation involving another student. That prompted a review of all students at the university who had indicated on their financial aid application forms that they were in a guardianship arrangement.

“This led to the discovery of a number of other instances of this ethically questionable maneuver,” Borst said.

Since then, Borst said, the University of Illinois has put a number of procedures in place to prevent similar abuses, and it has referred additional cases to the U.S. Department of Education and the state attorney general for further investigation.

But while the practice appears to have happened several times at the University of Illinois, officials from other universities said they have seen no indication of it happening at their schools.

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CLEMENCY FOR BLAGO?: Illinois political leaders from both parties on Thursday, Aug. 8, said former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich should remain in prison despite Republican U.S. President Donald Trump’s statement that he was considering commuting the sentence of the ex-governor.

Trump reportedly made his remarks on Air Force One on Wednesday night, saying Blagojevich has “been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens."

"I would think that there have been many politicians — I'm not one of them by the way — that have said a lot worse over the phone," Trump said, according to Politico. “I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly. … And a lot of people thought it was unfair, like a lot of other things — and it was the same gang, the [former FBI Director James] Comey gang and all these sleazebags that did it.”

Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, said Trump’s words were “politically driven” and “part of a theme” of the president aiming his actions at “certain groups in the United States who don't believe in the federal government.”

“He specifically mentioned the former FBI director, and, you know, somehow blaming him for this overreach by the FBI and Department of Justice is just wrong for those of us who lived through this,” Durkin said. “I don’t think he understands the different levels of corruption which the former governor was convicted of.”

Blagojevich began serving a 14-year federal prison sentence in 2012. He was convicted on 11 criminal counts related to his effort to sell the former U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president.

Speaking at the Illinois State Fairgrounds Thursday afternoon, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Blagojevich should serve his full sentence.

“I think President Trump has some pretty important things that he ought to be dealing with, not the least of which is the mindless killings over the last weekend, gun safety, I wish he’d focus on that. Governor Blagojevich should remain in prison,” Pritzker said.

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Pritzker signs Medicaid reform

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks with reporters Monday during a news conference in Chicago after signing a Medicaid reform package into law. Behind him are House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, and Maria Villalon, a Medicaid recipient. 

GAMING BOARD: The new chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board said Thursday, Aug. 8, he has no illusions about how tough of a job lies ahead.

“We all know that those tasks are substantial. In ordinary times our work would be challenging, but these are not ordinary times,” Schmadeke said as he opened his first meeting as head of the state’s gambling regulatory agency.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed the largest expansion of legal gambling in state history. It authorized the construction of up to six new casinos in the state, including one in Chicago, as well as legalized sports betting.

Revenue from those activities is earmarked for a massive, $45 billion capital improvements program, branded as “Rebuild Illinois.”

But Schmadeke said it will be successful only if the new, expanded gambling industry in Illinois has public trust and confidence.

“Maintaining that confidence must undergird everything we do,” Schmadeke said. “Achieving and preserving the integrity of the gaming industry in Illinois will be at the heart of my tenure on this board, and based upon what I know I believe that also applies to the board as a whole and to the staff. We will undertake our responsibility as effectively and as efficiently as possible, but we will not compromise on issues of integrity.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker named Schmadeke to head the gaming board July 29.

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USDA declares 'agriculture disaster' in Illinois, opens way for aid

COMMITTEE CHANGES: State Sen. Tom Cullerton was replaced Tuesday, Aug. 6, as chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, a move that comes four days after he was indicted on federal charges of embezzling money from a labor union.

According to a spokesman for the senate president’s office, the shakeup among committee chairs involves three Senate committees. Sen. Omar Aquino, D-Chicago, was named to replace Cullerton on the Labor Committee; Cullerton was named as the new chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee; and Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, former chair of Veterans Affairs, has been named fill Aquino’s former post as chair of the Government Accountability and Pensions Committee.

“After a discussion, it was a mutual decision that this was for the best,” John Patterson, a spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, said in an email. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, is a distant cousin of the senate president, a Chicago Democrat.

On Friday, Aug. 2, Tom Cullerton, 49, was charged with 40 counts in an indictment alleging he “knowingly conspire(d)” to embezzle from the Teamsters Joint Council 25 and Teamsters Local Union 734. Cullerton is also facing one count alleging he lied on health forms.

Cullerton has denied the allegations.

* * *

STREAMING SERVICES: Illinois’ top attorney is asking American video streaming services to avoid showing tobacco products in shows and movies to young viewers.

In a letter sent to companies including Netflix, Amazon, CBS Corporation and the Walt Disney Company, which owns Hulu, Attorney General Kwame Raoul and 42 other attorneys general wrote they wanted to “open a dialogue” about sheltering children from “tobacco imagery.”

That refers to all representations of nicotine products — cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars and others — as well as packaging, billboards, advertisements and cartoons.

“While we recognize the strides many streaming companies have taken to build a new media marketplace, the industry has, perhaps unwittingly, given countless children the key to a Pandora’s box of tobacco imagery, which the U.S. surgeon general has found causes young people to become smokers,” the state officials wrote in the letter.

New Illinois Gaming Board chairman vows credibility, integrity

Almost half of the top-performing movies in the U.S. from 2002 to 2018 were rated PG-13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 56 percent showed some kind of tobacco use.

Cigarettes are also prevalent in shows carried by streaming companies. A report by the Truth Initiative found more than half of the highest-rated shows carried by services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime showed tobacco use, as compared to similarly-rated cable shows (22 percent) or broadcast shows (38 percent).

“I encourage the industry to do the responsible thing and limit tobacco use in their video content,” Raoul said in a statement. “I am committed to protecting young people from the harmful effects of tobacco use, and limiting their exposure to the glamorization of tobacco use in movies and television is one step we can take.”

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MEMORIAL CEREMONY: The Illinois State Police, family members and dignitaries gathered Wednesday, Aug. 7, to commemorate Trooper Gerald Ellis in the third such ceremony held at Memorial Park in Springfield in almost as many months.

Ellis died March 30 in the line of duty when he intentionally used his patrol vehicle to block a car driving the wrong way down Interstate 94 in Lake County from colliding with a vehicle carrying a family. He was 36.

Brendan Kelly, director of the State Police, called Ellis a “hero.”

Ellis’ name was added to the monument wall, which is “an ever-lasting reminder of the tremendous cost paid at times” for the safety the force is tasked with providing citizens and communities in the state, Jack Garcia said. He is director of the Illinois State Police Merit Board and chairperson of the State Police Memorial Park.

The names are “engraved here for eternity so all our citizens and the visitors to our state can know and hopefully understand what these brave men and women, as well as their families, have sacrificed,” he added.

Kelly said Ellis’ death was difficult for his fellow officers. It came two days after Trooper Brooke Jones-Story was killed while conducting a traffic stop near Freeport in Stephenson County.

“It’s something to see such brave and strong people keeping their chins up but still grasping for answers,” he said. “I remember seeing a few clenched fists, perhaps a bit in anger, but mostly as if they were grabbing onto some imaginary rail or staff to hold themselves up.”

Stacy Ellis said her husband always wanted to be a police officer, and that joining the State Police was his dream job. He was a trooper for 11 years.

“Not only did he gain a job, he gained a family,” she said. “He achieved what we hope in our lifetime to achieve — a job that we’re proud of and that we want to go to every day.”

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SMOKING CESSATION FUNDING: Illinois compared favorably to other states in a report by a national advocacy group evaluating cancer reduction policies in all but one area — funding for its cessation program.

After a legislative session in which the General Assembly raised to 21 the minimum age to buy tobacco products, increased the usage tax on cigarettes and implemented a tax on e-cigarettes for the first time, an analysis by the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network found Illinois does not spend enough money helping those addicted to nicotine to quit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Illinois spend $136.7 million on a tobacco prevention and cessation program. According to the report, Illinois allocates $9.1 million to the initiative, 6.7 percent of the recommended level.

The solution, the advocacy group recommends, would be for the state to spend more money on its cessation program from a multi-state lawsuit it won against the tobacco industry in the late 1990s. Called the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, companies agreed to pay several states annual sums to compensate for medical costs related to smoking.

Illinois is being paid more than $9.1 billion through 2025 as a result of the lawsuit, according to the Department of Public Health.

A spokesperson from the Illinois Department of Public Health said in an email that Illinois will spend about $20 million of settlement-related money this fiscal year on “health related programs” — $4.1 million to run the Quitline, $5 million for anti-smoking program grants to local health departments and additional funds allocated to an assortment of other health programs for community health centers.

“Illinois is spending the largest share of funding as intended, on the medical costs of those who have suffered health issues as a result of tobacco,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The majority of the funds ($200 million) are allocated for Medicaid to pay for health care costs because tobacco is a major contributing factor in cancer and other diseases. By using the funds on Medicaid-related health-care costs, we obtain federal matching dollars, which allows Illinois to spend additional dollars on critical health care.”

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GUN LAWS: Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday, Aug. 5, called on congressional leaders, particularly Republicans, to push for strong federal gun control laws, including universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

“Remember, it takes leadership in Congress,” Pritzker said. “It is usually the Republican leaders who are unwilling to do this, and so I would call on the leadership in Congress and the president to stand up and address the issues of gun violence, to address the issues of high-capacity magazines, to address the issues of universal background checks.”

Pritzker responded to questions from reporters during an event Monday in Chicago. His remarks came in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting Saturday in El Paso, Texas, that left at least 22 people dead. That was followed by another shooting early Sunday morning in Dayton, Ohio, in which nine people were killed.

Days earlier, a shooter in Gilroy, California, opened fire on a crowd attending the town’s annual garlic festival on Sunday, July 28, that left four people dead, including the gunman.

Soon after taking office in January, Pritzker signed a bill passed during the 2018 legislative session requiring federally-licensed gun dealers in Illinois to also obtain a state license. That new law also imposes a number of new restrictions on gun dealers.

But speaking Monday, Pritzker said individual states like Illinois are limited in what they can do on their own, and he said only the federal government can make meaningful changes.

* * *

MEDICAID REFORM: Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday that people applying for Medicaid benefits in Illinois will see those applications processed more quickly, and health care providers will be paid more promptly, under a comprehensive reform bill now signed into law.

“This legislation launches one of the most aggressive, cross-agency efforts in Illinois history to expand health care access and to eliminate the multi-year Medicaid backlog once and for all,” Pritzker said during a bill-signing ceremony in Chicago.

Illinois operates its Medicaid program under what’s known as a “managed care” model. That means people who are covered by the system enroll in a plan administered by private insurance companies, known as managed care organizations, or MCOs. Those companies, in turn, are paid a flat, monthly per-person rate, which they use to pay for each person’s medical care.

In recent years, though, the Illinois program, called HealthChoice Illinois, has been plagued with a backlog of applications from individuals trying to get into the program as well as people trying to renew their coverage.

Senate Bill 1321, which was drafted by the bipartisan Medicaid Legislative Working Group, seeks to address both of those issues.

Among other things, it requires the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services to set up a new claims clearinghouse to collect and analyze data about medical bills and to adjudicate claims. That agency will also establish a dispute resolution process and will act as the arbiter in disagreements between providers and MCOs.

The new law also requires MCOs to pay claims within 30 days and to make expedited payments to providers that serve large numbers of Medicaid patients, including long-term care facilities where more than 80 percent of the patients are on Medicaid, safety net hospitals and government-owned providers.

And the bill calls for streamlining the process of determining people’s eligibility and calls for changes that will allow more Medicaid recipients to be renewed automatically.

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