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Unions struggle for developmentally disabled care jobs

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SPRINGFIELD — A debate over the future of developmental disability and mental health care in Illinois is paving the way for a behind-the-scenes brawl between unions in the state.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — A debate over the future of developmental disability and mental health care in Illinois is paving the way for a behind-the-scenes brawl between unions in the state.

Gov. Pat Quinn rang the bell in the fall when he announced the closure of seven state facilities, two of which care for people with developmentally disabilities, because of a lack of funds.

Quinn and lawmakers eventually found the cash to keep the facilities open, with a promise to review how to save the state money and improve care for patients.

Now with a budget address two weeks away, Quinn has announced closing at least one developmental disabled facility and a state-run mental health facility, the Jacksonville Developmental Center and Tinley Park Mental Health Center, respectively. Both were targeted for closure by Quinn in the fall.

The two centers employ 546 people, most of whom are members of the public-sector union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, or AFSCME.

AFSCME is fighting hard to keep those jobs, sending letters to lawmakers and holding public protests. If the facilities close, their residents will be moved to smaller, community-care facilities, staffed by employees who are likely members of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, a private-sector union.

"You could end up with unions on both sides" of the fight, said David Morrison, president of the government watchdog group, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

AFSCME represents about 5,000 people who work in state-run developmental disability facilities, said Anders Lindall, AFSCME spokesman.

Quinn promised not to close all the facilities, but he did say his recent announcement was the first step in a larger plan. If just half the centers close, that would mean 2,500 AFSCME members who are out of a job.

Lindall said AFSCME's resistance to closing the facilities is more about getting the residents the best care possible than about jobs or feuding with other unions.

"That's what's at stake. Are we going to do right by those individuals and their families and their communities? The rest of it is a distraction," Lindall said.

Calls to SEIU by Illinois Statehouse News were not returned.

Closing state facilities would divert a lot of money into the private sector.

The state is giving former residents of centers for people with developmental disabilities an average budget of $84,000 annually to find a community-care or home-care provider, though that number could swing wildly depending on how much care a person requires.

Most residents are eligible for Medicaid, meaning the federal government will cover half of the $84,000. Residents will get that budget for as long as they would have been in a state institution.

The state is compiling a database of providers for residents and their families that is already available. Residents also can shop outside that list.

The most recent figures for this year show nearly 2,000 residents staying in state-run developmental disability centers, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. If half those patients are moved out of the institutions, $84 million in taxpayer dollars would pay for community care or home care as provided by the private health-care industry.

Lindall said AFSCME represents about 5,000 people in the nonprofit health-care sector. But that number is small compared with the almost 40,000 members SEIU represents in the private health-care industry.

However, Quinn and AFSCME are on the outs, despite an influx of cash during the gubernatorial election in 2010 from the public union. Quinn has refused to give state employees a contracted cost-of-living increase this year.

AFSCME gave Quinn nothing between Oct. 1, 2011, and Jan. 27, 2012, while SEIU dropped $50,000 into his campaign war chest during that time period.

Quinn and his administration repeatedly have denied that shutting down the centers in Jacksonville, Tinley Park or elsewhere is about providing quality care for patients, not just an issue of the bottom line or campaign donations.

"The institutional approach is looking for beds and slots where you can put people. We don't look for beds and slots," Brie Callahan, a spokeswoman for Quinn, said. "Quality-of-life issues are what's driving this."

Closing Jacksonville and Tinley Park will save the state about $20 million annually.

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