The Illinois Senate approved a measure Thursday to raise physicians' licensing fees to $700 to help the state rehire workers who license and investigate doctors.
The Senate voted 38-19 on the bill in an attempt to retire a deficit in the medical unit of the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation by temporarily raising a three-year doctor's license to $700. The unit's budget woes forced more than half of the department's medical watchdog staff to be laid off last month.
Illinois officials and doctors have been at odds for months over how to adequately and fairly fund the unit. While both sides acknowledge that physicians' license fees should increase, they cannot agree on how much. They also disagree on whether the department should take a short-term loan to rehire the 18 staffers that were let go Jan. 15.
The Senate proposal, sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, now moves to the House for consideration. Separate legislation awaiting House action mimics the Senate measure in borrowing $6.6 million from a tax fund for rehiring staff. But the House version, sponsored by Speaker Michael Madigan, permanently raises the fee to $750.
However, Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, also took over sponsorship of Cullerton's bill after it arrived in the House on Thursday evening, an indication it has become the priority for addressing the problem.
Under the Senate measure, the three-year license — raised from $300 to $700 — is temporary. Payments would fall to $500 in July 2018 because Cullerton, another Chicago Democrat, believes the rate should only go up long enough to restore financial stability.
The increases under both proposals would allow the department to repay its loan.
The department supports both measures. But the Illinois State Medical Society has spoken against the borrowing provisions of both measures. The group's vice president, Jim Tierney, told a Senate committee Wednesday that the department should not borrow any money and that the state should instead pay the medical unit for money that previous administrations have taken out of its fund for other purposes.
The medical society would agree to a $500 fee for a three-year license, an increase that the association has previously suggested.
Manuel Flores, secretary of financial and professional regulation, said even if that money is restored, it would only keep the fund flush until 2016 so a higher increase is still necessary.
The $300, three-year fee physicians currently pay hasn't increased since 1987. The medical unit operates solely on doctors' fees.
If the House measure gets an OK and moves to the Senate, the competing bills potentially could both be approved and sent to the governor for him to decide. Typically, though, differing bills on the same subject become part of a House-Senate compromise.
But Madigan's sponsorship of the Senate option indicates he prefers it. Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Thursday evening he was unfamiliar with Madigan's action and could not immediately comment.
The medical community is urging legislators to fix the problem quickly. A deadline for medical school graduates to decide on residencies at teaching hospitals is Wednesday. Failure to reach a decision by then jeopardizes placements if Illinois cannot assure doctors-in-training they will be licensed to practice in the state before late summer when their jobs start.
Since the layoffs, processing times for licenses for physicians and medical residents have increased from 16 business days to six months, as only one employee is processing licensing applications.
Before the cutback, the medical unit each year processed nearly 2,600 license applications from new doctors and 2,300 temporary-license applications from medical residents. It also renewed almost 46,000 licenses for doctors every three years.