Illinois lawmakers aim to appropriate $9 million for free and charitable clinics

By

Maddie McCarthy

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Illinois lawmakers discussed a bill that would appropriate $9 million from the fiscal year (FY) 2025 budget for the state’s free and charitable clinics.

Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago) presented House Bill 5060 at a subject matter hearing in front of the House Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

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“[HB 5060] is really a reminder about a line item that appeared in last year’s budget,” Mah said. “It is for the good work that is done by free and charitable clinics all over the state. Unfortunately, the line was not in [Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s] introduced budget, so we wanted to make sure that you understood the important work the clinics do.”

In FY 2023, free clinics received $9 million in state funding for the first time through the Illinois Department of Public Health. The FY 2024 budget initially intended to dedicate another $9 million to the clinics, but they ultimately received only $4 million, Mah said. 

The proposed budget for FY 2025 includes no funding for the clinics. HB 5060 aims to restore the $9 million previously intended for them.

Melissa Maguire, executive director of the Illinois Association of Free and Charitable Clinics,  said the reduction in state funding negatively affected many association clinics, with smaller clinics taking the biggest hit.

Maguire said most of the clinics’ funds come from donations and fundraising work, and the majority of workers in them are volunteers. 

HB 5060 would allow for the clinics to be more sustainable and focus on expanding their services, Maguire said. Some clinics need updated medical equipment, affordable medications for patients, or funding for certain specialty personnel. The funding has also allowed clinics to address social determinants of health.

“This is not funds to run the clinic,” Maguire said. “This is funds to increase access to care and for them to be sustainable on their own in order to continue to provide valuable care.”

There are 45 free and charitable clinics around the state that provide different kinds of care, including primary, dental, behavioral, and mobile healthcare services, Maguire said. Free clinics are an important part of the state’s healthcare safety net.

Maguire said many clinics were started by providers who saw care gaps, particularly for certain people coming into the emergency department. Over a third of the clinics’ patients say they would go to the emergency room if free clinics did not exist, she said.

“Because of our clinics, we saved Illinois hospitals $36 million [in FY 2023] by keeping patients out of emergency departments.”

— Maguire

In order to receive care at a free clinic in Illinois, patients must be uninsured. However, some Medicaid beneficiaries can visit the clinics if Medicaid-covered providers are unavailable in their area, whether that is due to long waitlists or because no providers are nearby.

“In some communities, there are waitlists for providers that provide Medicaid,” Maguire said. “In other communities, they don’t have providers that provide services for those that are covered by Medicaid, specifically for dental and behavioral health. And in some cases, there are people who do not qualify for Medicaid, or do not trust the traditional healthcare system.”

Free and charitable clinics mostly serve adults—though their populations of children and young adults is growing—people of color, and people below the federal poverty level, Maguire said. They fill care gaps that federally qualified health centers do not cover.

The clinics also have workers that help their uninsured patients find healthcare coverage or enroll in Medicaid.

“Our clinics have continued to serve a critical role in providing healthcare to Illinoisans who need it most,” Maguire said. “Through shifts in Medicaid, through the pause of enrollment for health benefits for immigrants, and for the welcoming of migrants coming to our state, our clinics have ensured equitable access to care. The request for [a] restored $9 million would provide the valuable healthcare needed to the uninsured and underinsured, and is an important investment for the state.”

HB 5060 awaits a vote in the House Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee.

Readers can learn more about safety net services during the “Strengthening the Healthcare Safety Net” panel at the 2024 Illinois State of Reform Health Policy Conference, which will be held on May 29 at the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park. Those interested can register here.

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