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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Illinois: Cook County officials plan to shut down WIC program, health screenings for pregnant women to infant formula for new moms - April 2011

Union, commissioner question Cook County’s plan to cut WIC program - Chicago Sun-Times
BY LISA DONOVAN Cook County Reporter : Apr 22, 2011

Cook County officials plan to shut down a program that provides everything from health screenings for pregnant women to infant formula for new moms across the suburbs — but it wont be closed without a fight.

Stephen Martin, Chief Operating Officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health, has told a range of officials the county will no longer provide services funded by the federal Women, Infants and Children Program.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who represents the North Side and suburbs, said Martin told him earlier this week that won’t mean the assistance will dry up for those who rely on the program, which include some of the poorest families in the county.

“If we don’t do it, they’ll give [the WIC money] to other community groups to handle the program,” Suffredin said.

Still, Suffredin says he has questions about what it means to eliminate the program. By one estimate the county’s WIC program, which has offices in the Rolling Meadows, Bridgeview and Markham courthouses and another site in Maywood, has a caseload of 20,000 women and children.

“The issues are, who will provide these services and who will provide the outreach to connect people with these services?’’ Suffredin asked. “Should this have been Dr. Martin’s decision alone? Or should it have gone to the [health] board?”

Sean McDermott, a spokesman for the county public health department, assured “the WIC program will continue in Cook County, it will just be provided by’’— possibly one or more social service agencies.

Under the county, costs were exceeding revenues for the $3 million-a-year program, leaving public health officials with no other choice than to stop running it, McDermott said. Officials have said county ordinance requires grant-funded programs to stay on budget.

But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31, is planning to fight the move.

“With virtually no rationale and no public input, Cook County is preparing to eliminate these vital services,” AFSCME Local 31 Executive Director Henry Bayer wrote in a letter to county commissioners this week.

The AFSCME note, obtained by the Sun-Times, says Martin said during an April 15 tele-conference with union and program officials that a 10 percent cut in federal WIC funding means the county can no longer afford to administer the program completely from outside funds, as required.

McDermott wasn’t aware of the 10 percent cut mentioned in the AFSCME letter.

“Regardless of whatever cut comes down, this program in the last three years has not been keeping up with expenses,” McDermott said.

Asked why the program didn’t cut back on expenses rather than shutting down, McDermott said: “I don’t know the state allows us to shave back the program. Instead of 20,000, we only want 10,000. The cost of the program exceeds revenues we have to run.’’

He said public officials notified the state that they won’t be renewing the contract to run the program in the county. The county’s contract ends June 30. But public health officials are working with the state to find one or more social service agencies that could administer the program. Whether the offices will remain in the same locations is unclear.

AFSCME officials said about 70 AFSCME employees, including nutritionists and support staff, will lose their jobs if the county discontinues the local WIC program.

Bayer said in the letter that cutting the WIC program goes beyond job cuts.

“Ending the program has repercussions beyond just the families it serves,’’ he wrote. “There is a synergistic relationship between Cook County WIC and Cook County health care services — which serves to improve health care outcomes for program participants. Women come to WIC to obtain food benefits, but then are referred into the County health system. In fact, studies show an important benefit of WIC is that it provides a gateway to healthcare for participants. Referrals work the other way as well, and clients getting health are services at the County find it easy to apply for WIC.”

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