Illinois legislators consider change to health care act

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Jeremy Gorner
Chicago Tribune

The final day of the Illinois General Assembly’s fall session dragged late into the evening Thursday with several high-profile issues unresolved, including a measure to prevent people from using a decades-old state law to skirt coronavirus vaccination mandates by citing moral or religious objections.

The change to the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act was passed by the House Wednesday on a 64-52 vote but still awaited a vote in the Senate in the final scheduled hours of the session before potentially heading to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk.

The proposal comes as numerous lawsuits across Illinois challenge government and employer vaccination and testing requirements by citing a law originally intended to shield doctors and other health care workers from having to provide abortions or other reproductive services that conflict with their beliefs.

The issue has become a lightning rod amid the ongoing political fracturing over the government’s role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, though it hasn’t broken cleanly along partisan lines. Seven of the 73 Democrats in the House joined the Republican minority in opposing the measure, and two other members of the majority party voted “present.”



The Illinois State Capitol on Jan. 13, 2021.



Brian Cassella


Aside from the right-of-conscience proposal pending in the Senate, by early Thursday evening neither chamber had voted on a new map of the state’s 17 congressional districts, or a Pritzker-backed package of incentives for electric vehicle companies.

The Senate Thursday night voted 44-12 to send the House gambling legislation that, among other changes, would allow limited in-person betting on Illinois college sports teams and create a sportsbook license for Wintrust Arena, the home court of the WNBA champion Chicago Sky.

The change to the Health Care Right of Conscience Act passed through the Senate Executive Committee on Thursday afternoon with a 9-6 vote, with the six Republicans on the panel all voting against the measure.

The Senate GOP, the legislative superminority, has previously expressed its opposition to the bill, a sentiment repeated during Thursday’s committee hearing in a debate between three of the Republicans and Senate President Don Harmon.

“The premise behind this act is the broad premise of freedom to invoke your conscience or your religious belief from being subjected to something you don’t want,” said Sen. Jil Tracy, a Republican from Quincy.

Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said he believes the law was “poorly drafted” but said he doesn’t believe the original intent of the law was to excuse someone from doing anything they don’t want to do if they cite moral or religious objections.

“Let’s imagine that your constituent is pulled over under suspicion of drunken driving. Could that constituent tell the officer they would refuse a Breathalyzer test on the Health Care Right of Conscience Act? Could they refuse a field sobriety test because their medical condition is being tested?” Harmon said to Tracy. “That’s the absurd conclusion we reach if you read it as expansively as you are suggesting. This was designed to provide protections to health care providers.”

Republican Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington raised a familiar talking point among the Republicans, criticizing Pritzker for sidestepping the legislature by issuing executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For how long do you think the governor should be allowed to continually issue these executive orders that seem to circumvent the legislative process that allows us as a coequal branch of government an opportunity to have some input and dialogue in that? How long does that continue?” Barickman asked.

Harmon argued that Pritzker, as a sitting governor, has the authority to issue executive orders in the time of emergencies, a law that was adopted by a previous General Assembly.

“Similarly, a prior General Assembly adopted this law on the Health Care Right of Conscience, and people are using it in a new circumstance that was not foreseen when it was passed,” Harmon said. “I am here with an amendment to this law because I think it is being misapplied.

“Should someone bring forward a bill suggesting that the governor’s use of executive orders are misapplied? We can consider that if that was the majority consensus,” he continued.

Sen. Sue Rezin, a Republican from Morris, asked Harmon how long the change to the act would be enforced and if there was a threshold for doing away with that version of it — such as if Illinois gets to the point where 70% of its population is vaccinated against the COVID-19.

Harmon answered in a defensive tone.

“I don’t know when COVID-19 will no longer be a public health threat. I don’t know what those thresholds are. I don’t know that you know. And I’m fairly certain you’re going to vote ‘no’ on this,” Harmon told Rezin. “So, if you’d like to work with us to fashion an alternative, I’m happy to listen and see if you want to influence the legislative process. But if you’re just opposed to it, then you can be opposed to it.”

As Pritzker prepares for a trip to the Britain next week to promote the state’s efforts to combat climate change and its business climate, his top priority for the fall session was winning approval of a package of incentives to attract electric vehicle manufacturers and suppliers to the state.

The Senate Executive Committee voted 11-0 to send to the full chamber a package creating the Reimagining Electric Vehicles in Illinois, or REV, tax credit program.

Pritzker has aimed to position Illinois a leader in the growing industry, building off the success of the Rivian electric vehicle factory that opened in a former Mitsubishi plant in Normal with state assistance under his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Earlier this year, Pritzker announced a $7.9 million tax credit deal that is bringing Montreal-based Lion Electric Co. to the state to build electric buses and trucks in Joliet.

Supporters of the program, which, among other incentives, would allow local governments to offer property tax abatements to electric vehicle manufacturers and suppliers, say it’s necessary to give Illinois a competitive edge in attracting companies.

Democratic Sen. Steve Stadelman of Calendonia, the measure’s sponsor, acknowledged that he has a “parochial interest” in trying to sway automaker Stellantis to transform its Jeep plant in nearby Belvidere into an electric vehicle plant.

But the proposal ultimately could create “thousands of jobs, potentially throughout the state,” Stadelman said.

Testifying on behalf of the Pritzker administration, Deputy Gov. Andy Manar called the plan “a major piece of Gov. Pritzker’s vision of economic growth as we come out of the COVID pandemic as a stronger state.”

“We are not going to heap a mountain of cash on a company to be here,” Manar said. “We’re just not going to do that. That’s not good public policy. But we will have targeted incentives.”

Business interests are divided over the plan, with the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association offering its support but the Illinois Chamber of Commerce expressing concerns that so-called labor peace agreements required under the proposal would cause some major companies to look elsewhere.

“If we want to be in the game, we have to pass the incentive package, and we have to pass it today because these companies have been making decisions and they’re making these decisions between now and the end of the year,” said Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the manufacturers group.

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October 28, 2021 at 07:52PM

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