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...and shut down TB district

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
Chicago Tribune

Barnacles and government agencies have something in common: Once they attach themselves -- to a pier or to the public money trough -- they don't let go very easily.

In 1947, about four years before "I Love Lucy" hit the airwaves, the Suburban Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District was created to deal with the deadliest disease in the U.S. at the time. Patients usually were quarantined in sanitariums to prevent contagion.

About 56 years later, "Lucy" reruns are still on the air (check local listings) and Cook County's tuberculosis district, with a total appropriation of approximately $7 million in 2003, is still running too (check your property tax bill).

Lucy is still on the air because of public demand. In the case of Cook County's tuberculosis sanitariums, it must be the barnacle effect.

As the editorial above discusses, the Cook County Board has many options available to cut spending before it turns to new taxes to close a budget deficit.

In the case of the Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District, it doesn't need to curtail spending. It needs to shut the joint down.

According to the Civic Federation, the tuberculosis district has accumulated so much money in its surplus fund as to raise legal and financial management questions.

In 2002, there were 512 cases of tuberculosis in the county. The 382 cases in the city were handled by the Chicago Department of Public Health's Tuberculosis Control Program, while the Cook County tuberculosis district treated the remaining 130 cases.

Do the math and you will get some interesting figures. The City of Chicago has budgeted less that $16,000 per tuberculosis patient for next year, while the county's tuberculosis district proposes to spend nearly $37,000 per patient at its facilities in the suburbs.

Compare per-patient costs with other major U.S. cities, and Cook County's expenses are still extraordinarily high.

It gets worse. The largest chunk of the salaries goes not to nurses or physicians, but "management and clerical" employees. The district continues to levy a property tax even though it has accumulated $10 million in surplus funds.

Tuberculosis nowadays is far less prevalent than it used to be in 1947 and is usually treated by antibiotics administered on an outpatient basis. Savings from eliminating the district and turning over suburban TB cases to the county's Bureau of Health should net taxpayers considerable savings. For starters, the $10 million surplus should be transferred to the county's ledgers, along with assets such as buildings and land.

Getting rid of the tuberculosis network likely will require action from the state legislature. A spokesman for County Board President John Stroger says he supports the abolition of the tuberculosis district--but he sure wasn't in Springfield last week trying to do away with it.

Here's a job for Stroger and Co. in 2004: Abolish the TB taxing district.



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