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Push for action on health reform

Governor Quinn and legislators will join community leaders from across the area at a rally to push the state legislature to create a health insurance exchange to prepare for health reform’s rollout.

The rally takes place Sunday, October 16 at 3 p.m. at Temple Sholom, 3480 N. Lake Shore Drive.

Unless the legislature acts this year to set up an exchange, the state could lose more than $90 million in federal early startup grants under the Affordable Care Act, said Tom Lenz of United Power for Action and Justice, a regional network of congregations and community organizations that’s sponsoring the rally.

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Protests target trade pact talks

A Labor Day rally will kick off a week of action targetting negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement that critics fear will favor sweatshop manufacturers, agribusiness, and pharmaceutical companies at the expense of workers, farmers and consumers.

It’s yet another area where President Obama’s progressive supporters find themselves at odds with his administration’s policies, and it comes days before a major address on jobs in which the president may push for action on free trade deals.

Labor, environmental, community and health groups will rally Monday, September 5, at 11 a.m. in Grant Park at Columbus and Congress and march to the Chicago Hilton, 720 S. Michigan, where talks start Tuesday.

The rally will “demand a fair deal — one that stops corporations from reaping big bucks by sending good manufacturing and service jobs overseas [and] depressing wages and benefits in Chicago and around the country,” according to Stand Up Chicago, a local labor-community coalition.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who recently announced that Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is becoming entirely fair-trade-sourced, will speak – and provide free ice cream.

Trade officials from eight countries – and hundreds of corporate executives involved as “official trade advisers” – will participate in ten days of talks at the Chicago Hilton, 720 S. Michigan, starting September 6.

As talks start Tuesday, Ben and Jerry will join fair trade advocates (11 a.m. outside the Hilton) delivering 10,000 postcards to negotiators calling for protection of labor, environmental, and human rights standards. (See below for more activities.) Read the rest of this entry »

Protest threat of city health clinic privatization

City clinic clients and community supporters will protest Tuesday against the threat of privatization at an event where Mayor Emanuel and Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair are speaking on “Transforming Healthcare in Chicago.”

Southside Together Organizing for Power and others – who stopped city efforts to close mental health clinics two years ago – will rally at 10 a.m., Tuesday, August 16, at the University Clulb, 76 E. Monroe.

Emanuel is said to be set to unveil a plan for the city’s health services next week [correction: it’s being released Tuesday, August 16].  In July he said he’d identified millions of dollars of savings by ordering city health clinics to partner with federally-qualified health centers, private nonprofits that operate clinics under federal grants and guidelines.

No details on how those savings would be accomplished have yet been forthcoming.

But last month, the city’s labor relations director wrote AFSCME Council 31 saying the city is considering contracting out services provided by its community health centers – and that job losses for union members could be expected.

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Mental health groups oppose cuts, privatization

Mental health activists concerned about potential service cuts and privatization will hold a town hall meeting Friday with Chicago Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair.

Mental health providers and consumers will join Choucair on a panel, Friday, August 5, 5:30 p.m., in the Joyce Auditorium of Mercy Hospital, 2525 S. Michigan, 2nd floor.

The groups are demanding to be included in a task force on city-county collaboration formed by Mayor Emanuel and County President Preckwinkle.

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War on Drugs: 40 years of failure?

Cook County president Toni Preckwinkle will speak at a rally Friday to “end the war on drugs” – while the White House steps up efforts to defend its drug policies in the face of growing criticism.

A broad coalition of civil rights, health, policy, faith, community and student groups will hold a Rally to End the War on Drugs on Friday, June 17 at noon at the Thompson Center, Randolph and Dearborn.   It’s the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs.

Participants cite the racially discriminatory impact of the nation’s drug policies – they’ve been recently tagged “the new Jim Crow”– and the expense and inefficiency of addressing health disorders through the criminal justice system, while support for treatment lags.

Meanwhile the White House released a report showing that Cook County leads the nation in the proportion of individuals testing positive for drugs following their arrest.  Read the rest of this entry »

Vets: Stop redeploying injured troops

At a Memorial Day ceremony Monday, anti-war veterans will call for an end to redeployment of troops suffering from war-related trauma.

Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and Veterans for Peace will gather at the Vietnam War Memorial by the river at Wacker and Wabash at 11 a.m. on Monday, May 30.

It’s one of many events across the country supporting IVAW’s Operation Recovery, an organizing campaign at Fort Hood in Texas which is pressing the base commander to stop the large-scale redeployment of troops with Military Sexual Trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Fort Hood is a major site for deployment of troops overseas, and WBEZ reports that 22 soldiers committed suicide there last year.

With redeployment rates at historic highs, veterans say about 20 percent of the military are suffering from some form of trauma.  Up to 60 percent of female reservists and National Guard report sexual harrassment on overseas deployments, Chicago IVAW activist Aaron Hughes told Radio Arte last December.

“The Department of Defense has regulations against deploying soldiers who are dealing with trauma,” he said. “But no one is holding them accountable to their own regulations.”

One issue is a lack of testing.  “They are not testing for TBI after every concussion” as they should be, Hughes said.

Soldiers who seek help are often simply medicated and redeployed, Navy veteran David Van Dam told Radio Arte.  He cited a Military Times report that psychiatric drug use by the military has increased dramatically since the current wars began.

According to the report, at least 17 percent of active duty personnel are prescribed antidepressants, and the use of antipsychotic medication is up 200 percent since 2001.  Many troops are prescribed “cocktails” of multiple medications, and “off-label” use is common, with drugs developed for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder commonly used to treat PTSD symptoms.

The same drugs are prescribed for veterans with 100 percent disability due to PTSD, Van Dam pointed out.

The drugs have a range of side effects; some can impair motor skills and reduce reaction times; commonly-used antidepressants are known to increase the risk of suicide and aggression.

“These soldiers are over there carrying weapons, putting themselves at risk along with their fellow service members, and the Afghan and Iraqi people,” he said.

Multiple deployments increase the risk of PTSD, and redeployment of soldiers with trauma heightens the risk of serious disability, advocates say.

It’s another reason to “end the occupations,” Hughes said last year.  “The military depends on redeploying these traumatized soldiers in order to keep the wars going.”

Health reform bill disappoints

As a bill backed by health reform advocates to establish a state insurance exchange languishes in committee, a version supported by the insurance industry is moving through the Illinois House — and one longtime advocate wonders why Illinois Democrats are carrying water for the insurers.

The House Insurance Committee approved a measure Wednesday creating a study commission to recommend legislation to establish an exchange. The measure, backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan, includes language previously approved by the House and adds a series of preemptions that advocates say will undercut the effectiveness of health reform.

With the original legislation, the fear was that the insurance industry would dominate the study group and consumer and small business voices would be marginalized.

The new version includes provisions restricting the size of small businesses that could participate, and would create separate pools for individuals and small businesses, limiting economies of scale and bargaining power.

Other provisions would bar the state from adding mandates for insurance coverage beyond what the government establishes, and continue taxpayer subsidies that were to be dropped – amounting to $30 million to $35 million a year – for the state’s high risk pool, where insurers can dump patients with chronic illnesses whom they don’t want to cover.

One upshot would likely be significant reductions in cost savings, said Jim Duffett of the Campaign for Better Health Care.

He thinks the insurers are trying to sabotage health reform.  “The industry hopes that Obama loses next year and the Senate goes Republican and they can take health reform apart little by little.”

As for the legislative sponsors, he’s a bit nonplussed.  “These are Democrats,” he said. “They’re supposed to care about consumers and consumer protection, not the interests of the insurance industry.”

CBHC is calling on legislators to defeat the current measure, now listed as SB 1555.  The group backs another bill, SB 1729, which reflects a consensus negotiated earlier this year by insurance, consumer, business and health industry representatives meeting with the state’s Department of Insurance.  It’s stalled in the Senate Assignments Committee.

“It’s unfortunate the legislature is ignoring six months of stakeholder meetings and expert testimony about how to come up with the best plan this year to set up a competitive system – and adding this bad preemptive policy language,” said Brian Imus of Illinois PIRG.

“I hope that lawmakers pushing this legislation will give an equal opportunity for consumer advocates and small businesses to raise their issues,” he added.

Hearing on Oak Forest Hospital

Another hearing on Cook County’s proposal to close Oak Forest Hospital takes place Monday, and patients, staff and community residents are expected to testify against the plan.

A hearing of the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board takes place Monday, April 18, 10 a.m. at Bremen Township Hall, 15350 Oak Park Avenue in Oak Forest.

“We’re very concerned that the county is rushing to close it down without a better plan for the transition,” said Carol O’Neill, a former Oak Forest staffer. “There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

“The issue is that there needs to be a safety net” to provide care for the uninsured and underinsured — “so folks aren’t dying in the streets,” said John Gaudette of Citizen Action Illinois.

Last month the health facilities board voted against the county plan after a report from the Illinois Department of Public Health said the proposed closing would worsen the shortage of intensive care and long term care beds in the area.

The board is expected to reconsider the matter in May. Several vacant seats on the board may be filled by then.

The Cook County Health and Hospital System has proposed eliminating emergency, surgical and inpatient services at Oak Forest and turning it into an outpatient acute care facility. The plan is projected to save $25 million a year. The emergency room would become an urgent care clinic, open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“We have clinics” in the south suburbs, said Lee Mayberry, a longtime patient at Oak Forest. “What we need is a hospital.”

O’Neil expressed concern over increased risks for long-term care patients who might be moved to nursing homes.

Mayberry said a number of long-term care patients died within months after being moved to nursing homes when the county tried to close the unit in 2007.

He had high praise for the staff of Oak Forest.

The facilities board also cited vagueness over the county’s timeline for opening the proposed outpatient facility.

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