• Ben Szalinski
    MAY 14, 2024


    Final weeks of session: Health insurance reform, CPS closing pause top agenda  

    The Illinois Capitol 

    The General Assembly is in their final weeks of the spring session with the budget the main focus for legislators ahead of their self-imposed May 24 deadline. 

    This spring’s session has been on the quiet side, though several important discussions loom for the fall or next spring — after the November elections. But legislators are still looking to send several important bills to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk before the end of the month.

    Health insurance reform 

    Pritzker’s top policy agenda this spring was HB5395, also known as the Healthcare Protection Act, being led by Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin) and Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago). The bill enjoyed bipartisan support when it passed the House 81-25 on April 18, but it is making slow progress in the Senate. The bill was amended again and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Insurance Committee, which was not scheduled to meet as of Monday afternoon. 

    The first part of the plan goes after utilization management, or prior authorization rules, implemented by insurance companies, where patients often need permission from the insurance company to get the company to cover the doctor’s visit, medication or procedure. The proposal specifically targets mental health care and would ban prior authorization by insurance companies for anyone seeking inpatient mental health treatment. It would also require insurance companies to post for consumers what treatment will require prior authorization.   

    It also goes after what is known as step therapy — where a patient must try different steps of treatment. Insurance companies use the practices to try to contain healthcare costs for patients. However, the bill would permit step therapy when a name-brand drug is substituted with a cheaper generic drug that can achieve the same treatment result.      

    The plan would also require insurance companies to have the same definitions of medical necessity as healthcare providers.      

    Pritzker also wants to ban Short Term Limited Duration plans, or what he called “junk insurance” plans that, while affordable, are below federal healthcare standards.      

    Moratorium on CPS closures   

    The Senate is set to pass HB303 with wide support within the next two weeks to ban the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) board from closing any schools and making changes to charter and magnet schools until the CPS board is fully elected in 2027. The bill would stonewall any attempts by what is expected to be a Chicago Teachers Union-aligned board that is partially appointed by Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson that would potentially eliminate some of the selective enrollment schools.   

    The bill has enjoyed strong bipartisan support and passed the House 92-8 even after the Chicago Teachers Union labeled the bill “racist.” The Senate Executive Committee unanimously passed the bill last week without any discussion just minutes before Johnson sat down for a meeting with Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park).   

    BIPA reform  

    Business groups have spent several years asking legislators to reform the Biometric Information Privacy Act after several businesses have been subject to multi-billion-dollar lawsuits. The House now appears set to pass reform out of the General Assembly.   

    The Senate voted 46-13 on April 11 to pass SB2979, which makes several reforms to tighten the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) to limit the frequency of violations of the law. Under the bill, violations of the law would be counted on a per-person basis rather than per violation. For example, if a person signs into and out of their job four times a day using their fingerprint without first being asked for permission, it would only be counted as one violation instead of four. The bill also would allow permission to be given electronically, rather than in writing, and fines would continue to be levied at $1,000 per violation.   

    Business groups largely aren’t supporting the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago) in the Senate and now Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) in the House.  

    “Though SB 2979 will place some limits on financial exposure for companies that have yet to be targeted for business-ending judgements under the existing law, it is not retroactive and therefore fails to help the thousands of businesses still fighting against massive judgements even though there is no proof that harm ever occurred,” a coalition of business groups said in a joint statement in March. “Meanwhile, businesses will still be denied the ability to deploy proven and reliable technology for security and protection purposes, such as managing access to controlled substances, limiting entry to sensitive facilities, preventing violent crime and ensuring roadway safety. For these reasons, we are unable to support this legislation in its current form.”    

    ‘Captive audience’ regulation  

    The Senate voted 38-18 on May 2 to pass SB3649, which would prohibit an employer from retaliating against any employee who does not wish to attend an employer-led meeting on a political or religious subject. The bill is an initiative of Illinois labor unions but opposed by several business groups. The labor unions say the goal of the legislation is not to prevent employers from discussing the topics at work-related meetings, but to give employees a comfortable outlet if they aren’t interested in hearing about their employer’s political or religious opinions.  

    Business groups have opposed it, however, worrying that the bill would inadvertently land employers in trouble if politics or religion is discussed in any place at work. They also believe it violates free speech rights.   

    The bill’s future is in question, however. After it passed the Senate early this month, it has been held up in the House Rules Committee. Rep. Marcus Evans (D-Chicago) is expected to carry it if it moves forward.   

    Junk fees regulation  

    The House voted 71-35, with one voting present, on April 18 to pass HB4629 by Rep. Bob Morgan (D-Deerfield), which requires extra and sometimes hidden fees, also known as ‘junk fees’ by requiring businesses to disclose them in the final price to consumers. The bill prohibits goods and services from being advertised at a price that does not clearly display the total price or fails to disclose the total cost of the good or service with most fees included. It does not require many sales taxes or other required taxes and fees to be included.   

    It's been a slow move through the Senate for the bill, however. It is currently awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it was tabled with multiple extensions until this Friday to pass. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Omar Aquino (D-Chicago).  

    Criminalizing AI child pornography   

    The House voted 113-0 to pass HB4623 by Rep. Jen Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview), which amends Illinois’ definition of child pornography to include modified images and criminalizes images of a child engaging in a sexual act, even if the children in the images aren’t real. It also makes it illegal to create an image showing a real identifiable child engaging in a sexual act that they did not actually engage in.    

    But the bill doesn’t appear to have strong odds of passing in the Senate. It’s been stuck in the Senate Assignments Committee since it advanced out of the House with Sen. Mary Edly-Allen (D-Libertyville) as the sponsor. It has compiled 17 cosponsors in the Senate, however.   

    The bill is being pushed by Attorney General Kwame Raoul. His office told lawmakers during hearings that prosecutors will need new tools to prosecute child pornography as AI images become more realistic and it becomes challenging to figure out which ones are real or fake.   

    Pension reform  

    The House Personnel and Pensions Committee has been discussing pension reform to Tier 2 and ensuring it complies with federal safe harbor laws for a year now. Pritzker added to those discussions during his February State of the State address when he called for the most significant pension overhaul since Tier 2 was established in 2011.   

    Under Pritzker’s plan, the state would set a goal of paying off 100 percent of the pension debt by 2048 rather than 90 percent by 2045, eliminating the current pension payment plan known as the Edgar Ramp. When bonds are paid off in 2030 and 2033, bond revenues would go toward making additional pension payments. Pritzker’s office estimates that making payments above what is required between 2030 and 2040 will save the state $5.1 billion by 2045.    

    A problem with the Edgar Ramp is that the law requires any deviation from the path to 90 percent funded to be made up by 2045, even if there is an economic downturn around that time that hurts the state’s pension investments. The proposal calls for creating shorter amortization runways to mitigate any effects from negative short-term reforms and adjust Tier 2 pensions to align with Social Security benefits.    

    But discussions could continue beyond this spring into the summer with legislators coming back with a reform plan in the fall or next spring. The House committee has continued to hold discussions about Pritzker’s plan and reforms to Tier 2 that labor leaders say are becoming urgent, but no concrete plan appears set to move forward in the next two weeks.   

    Hemp regulation  

    Legislators have been at a standstill over how to regulate hemp. Most agree there should be regulations for businesses and what age people can purchase hemp products, including those with THC such as delta-8. But several Democrats favor a temporary ban while others want new regulations and licenses issued to businesses selling hemp products.   

    SB776 by Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) is the only bill that could move forward on hemp regulation at this point. She has proposed a series of reforms that would regulate hemp similar to cannabis, but her proposal does not appear to create new immediate licenses for selling hemp. The bill is eligible to pass the Senate at any time, but it will likely be determined this week if Lightford’s amendment will be assigned to a committee first.   

    Statewide public defender  

    New legislation filed on Monday could create the Office of the State Public Defender as a stand-alone state office, rather than tied into the judiciary. HB5842 was filed by Rep. Dave Vella (D-Rockford). Harmon was leading a separate bill in the Senate to establish a statewide public defender office, but he put that on hold amid concerns about tying the office to the judiciary.   

    The bill comes as public defenders around Illinois have gained an increasingly important role under new court processes established by the Pretrial Fairness Act. The law requires many people accused of crimes to stand in front of a judge within 48 hours of an arrest for certain crimes where a decision will be made on if the person should be held in jail pretrial. Many defendants in these trials have decided to work with a public defender, who will present reasons why the judge should not hold a person pretrial. Public defenders have seen increased workloads since the law took effect last year.   

    Whether Vella’s bill moves forward remains to be seen. With two weeks of session left, it is likely that the bill’s provisions could be amended onto another bill that can move through the legislature quickly.   

    Pipeline moratorium   

    Multiple proposals are on the table to regulate carbon dioxide pipelines, but how they will move forward remains unclear. None are currently teed up to pass either chamber.   

    Proposals have included banning pipeline construction until the state establishes regulations or would set a series of environmental and land use regulations in place without a ban. Environmentalists back a ban on the pipelines while business, labor and agriculture groups support a plan to put regulations in place with protections for landowners.   

    Carbon sequestration has been a tense issue in many downstate communities as companies have proposed building pipelines that capture carbon dioxide and transport it somewhere else to be stored. A pipeline originating in South Dakota and ending southeast of Springfield proposed by Navigator CO2 was halted last year because of regulatory issues. Many residents also opposed the pipeline.     

    Democratic committee leaders have suggested conversations would be ongoing this spring with a possible final proposal on carbon capture and sequestration and transporting carbon dioxide surfacing late in session.   

    IVF coverage  

    The Senate voted 50-0, with several Republicans skipping the vote, on April 12 to pass SB2639, which would require insurance companies to cover infertility treatment that is recommended by a physician, including in vitro fertilization. The vote comes at pivotal time in U.S. politics with IVF the latest controversial subject in debate over reproductive rights.    

    The bill was passed on to Rep. Margaret Croke (D-Chicago) in the House, but it no longer appears viable. Instead, Pritzker has already signed legislation putting a non-binding referendum on the ballot in November to allow Illinois voters to weigh in on whether insurance companies should be required to cover fertility treatment.   

    Help for local journalism   

    The Senate voted 43-13 on April 17 to approve SB3592 by Sen. Steve Stadelman (D-Caledonia), which establishes a scholarship program for Illinois college students to pursue journalism degrees so long as they work at an Illinois newsroom for two years and requires advanced notice when a local newsroom is going up for sale. The bill would require that any local newsroom that is going to be sold must notify their employees and the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) 120 days before the sale. 

    The bill defines a local news organization as one that produces “original content concerning matters of public interest through reporting activities, including conducting interviews, observing current events, or analyzing documents or other information.” They must have at least one full-time employee who works at least 30 hours per week covering Illinois or Illinois communities and who lives within 50 miles of the area they cover. Print outlets must publish once a month while digital-only organizations would be ones that publish at least one story about the community each week and have at least 33 percent of its audience in Illinois. Organizations must also disclose their ownership on their website and not receive more than half of their revenue from political action committees. 

    The plan is now set for a floor vote in the House, where it is sponsored by Vella. The plan is a modified version of a proposal produced by a task force commissioned to find ways the state can help revitalize local print journalism. Tax credits were originally proposed for newsrooms to incentivize hiring and retaining reporters but are more likely to be considered in broader budget conversations.  

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