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Illinois officials call new health-care law 'revolutionary' in fight for racial justice

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BELLEVILLE — Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois legislators traveled to the metro-east on Friday to talk about a new law designed to improve health-care access for the poor and people of color, including prenatal and childbirth services.

It's a complicated issue, illustrated by the fact that the news conference was held at Touchette Regional Hospital in Centreville, which closed its obstetric unit last year. Most of its doctors are delivering babies at Memorial Hospital Shiloh, 16 miles away.

Touchette is a "safety-net" hospital that receives supplemental Medicaid funding for serving a large percentage of low-income patients. The region's other safety net, Gateway Regional Medical Center in Granite City, also closed its obstetric unit last year.

"Critical-care hospitals ... are in a constant struggle to remain solvent," Pritzker said Friday when asked if the closures run contrary to the state's new initiative.

"I know that everybody here at Touchette would like to provide every service that anybody might need on the health-care front. But sometimes those things are not possible, and they reach out to try to figure out how best to serve people while also making sure they can keep their doors open."

Touchette and Gateway officials cited "low volume" as the reason for closing their obstetric units. Doctors delivered 37 babies at Touchette the year before COVID-19 hit and fewer than 250 at Gateway, which is now sending women to Anderson Hospital in Maryville.

'Chilling' statistics show disparity

Local and Chicago-area legislators at the news conference were celebrating Pritzker's signing on Tuesday of House Bill 158, known as the Health Care and Human Services Reform Act.

Many provisions center on eliminating race-based and other inequities in the state's health-care system and expanding medical services available to those in underserved communities.

"Racial disparities ... became undeniably apparent in the midst of a global pandemic," said Illinois Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Chicago, one of the bill's sponsors.

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Also at the news conference were Illinois Sen. Christopher Belts, D-Centreville, and Illinois Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea. Several officials focused their remarks on the need for better access to prenatal, childbirth and postnatal care by Black, brown and poor women.

They noted that Black women are three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women in the United States and six times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes in Illinois.

"More than four out of five of those pregnancy-related deaths were preventable," Pritzker said, citing a recent Illinois Department of Public Health study. "That's a chilling statistic. But more important than awareness is taking action."

Blacks 'disrespected' in health care

Illinois Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, another sponsor of House Bill 158, described the legislation as "monumental" and "revolutionary" in the effort to help Black people who have been "disrespected, abused and misused" by the health-care system for centuries.

Hunter pointed to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the 1900s and the work of Dr. J. Marion Sims (1813-1883), an American physician known as the "father of modern gynecology," a pioneer of surgical techniques and president of the American Medical Association.

"It should be known and admonished that he accomplished these things by his unethical use of enslaved women and his medical tests with no anesthetic," she said.

"During that time, Black people were believed to be subhuman and therefore impervious to pain. These were the beliefs of the 19th century, but they still feel true in our modern era."

Hunter said Black people are more susceptible to disease and more likely to die prematurely, partly because they still are not taken seriously by doctors and often don't get the medication or treatment they need due to misinformation and implicit bias.

Hunter said the new health-care law combined with recent Medicaid expansion could lead to the appropriation of up to $50 million in grants to safety-net hospitals for the preservation or enhancement of obstetric and gynecology services.

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Bill passed on party-line vote

The Health Care and Human Services Reform Act was the fourth and final "pillar" of a social-justice agenda spearheaded by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. Earlier this year, Pritzker signed into law bills related to criminal justice, education and the economy.

The Illinois General Assembly passed House Bill 158 along party lines with Democratic support. Only one Republican senator voted "yes."

The act is something of a health-care blueprint for the state. Most provisions are subject to appropriation, meaning future legislatures will have to decide whether to allocate money to fund them. Opponents have estimated the price tag at $12 million.

Among its many provisions, the act will:

—Support the operation of safety-net hospitals and community health-care centers.

—Provide Medicaid coverage for doula services (non-medical assistance for pregnant women).

—Create a commission "to identify and propose statewide policies to eliminate systemic racism and advance equitable solutions."

—Require implicit-bias training for all doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals in Illinois.

—Extend a moratorium on hospital closures until after the COVID-19 emergency is over.

—Permit workers to use sick days to care for a parent, mother-in-law, father-in-law, grandparent or stepparent.

Touchette CEO Larry McCulley told state officials at the news conference that they deserve "immense gratitude" for their work on the new law.

"To finally see hope, opportunity, vision for our community, to not just have equitability and health access but to have equity and health outcomes ... It's exactly what we have been advocating for, testifying for and fighting for," he said.


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