Editorial: Deadbeat Illinois shouldn't miss out on extra cash

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

While the debate on how to fill what's now projected to be an $11.5 billion budget hole will surely be passionate, one Illinois fiscal matter should receive prompt and deliberate attention: the chronic delay in paying back Medicaid providers.

We've long written that this problem is an unacceptable burden on local doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies and other caregivers who aren't paid for months after serving Medicaid patients, but it's now also putting the state at risk of losing out on a massive amount of federal money.

At stake is a $2.9 billion boost in what the feds reimburse Illinois, paid out over 27 months. But we're only eligible for it if the state reforms its deadbeat ways and starts paying back doctors, hospitals and nursing homes within 30 days. That's a target that has to be hit by June 1. Unfortunately, as of this week it was taking 71 business days for the state to cut a check.

This is found money, and Comptroller Dan Hynes is eager to find a way to get hold of it and at the same time convincingly address the backlog he's been pointing out to lawmakers and governors for 10 years. His solution contemplates borrowing more money over the short term. Though Illinois already borrowed $1.4 billion in December to pay some earlier, long-unpaid bills, such loans are always due by the June 30 close of the fiscal year. With such a narrow window, once the state pays off its delinquent bills it has to start setting money aside quickly to pay back the loan - which means that it starts to become delinquent on new bills.

Hynes' proposal would let us borrow another $1.5 billion over a full year, meaning there's more time to squirrel away cash for loan payments once we come current on our bills - and more money coming to us from the federal treasury at the same time to help us get off this deadbeat merry-go-round. Fortunately it doesn't seem that this will become a long-term budget gimmick to push debt into the future. The legislation being considered is narrowly written, only letting the state take on such extra debt for this stimulus cash and for future years of another program designed to help capture federal Medicaid reimbursement to hospitals.

While the entire plan feels like borrowing from Peter in the short term to pay Paul, there don't seem to be any other viable ways to tackle a mountain of unpaid bills by the start of June. Right now, Illinois is essentially taking interest-free loans from health providers by making them wait for payments. Rather than taking it out on these folks - some of whom have had to lay off workers locally or borrow themselves to make payroll - we'd rather the debt was to a lender that expected it. Hynes deserves credit for developing a stopgap solution that at least gives us a shot at this unanticipated money from Uncle Sam. As long as that money is out there, we'd rather Illinois get its share than pass it up.

Yet it's important we don't view this as anything but a quick fix to a persistent problem. Even the extra Medicaid money from Washington goes away in 27 months. Let's use that time to work toward living within our means and being able to consistently pay our bills on time.

Peoria Journal Star