This Thursday the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability will decide whether to appropriate sufficient funds to keep the Jacksonville Development Center open, or to close it down in a matter of months. That decision will have major implications for our city, but it also represents one case out of hundreds across the country in which reduced government budgets conflict with community interests.
The JDC has played an integral role in the history of Jacksonville. In 1847 the state legislature established the Illinois State Asylum and Hospital for the Insane, which opened exactly 150 years ago this month. This new public hospital was based on an innovative idea: the state would assume the costs of treating and caring for “the insane”.
Since then, this hospital has undergone significant changes in its name and functions. In the 1970s, care for the developmentally disabled was added to the hospital’s mission. Later in-patient treatment for the mentally ill was eliminated, hence the final name change to the Jacksonville Developmental Center.
While the type of patient has changed, the original idea has not: the state, representing all the people, assumes the medical challenge and financial burden of caring for citizens who cannot care for themselves. That is an expensive undertaking. At the public hearing in Illinois College’s Bruner Fitness Center on October 24, administrators from the Illinois Department of Human Services estimated that the annual cost at JDC is about $200,000 per patient. With nearly 200 patients, the total cost is about $40,000,000, or about $3 per Illinois resident per year.
The JDC is in bad shape. It is heated by outdated coal-fired furnaces, several of which no longer function. Years of inadequate budgets have left an estimated $100 million in deferred maintenance of buildings and roads. In 2010 the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency which administers these programs, nearly decertified JDC due to life safety code violations. Perhaps because of these problems, the JDC is the most expensive among similar Illinois state facilities in per capita cost.
The public hearing revealed conflicts that go beyond budget issues. The Illinois Council for Developmental Disabilities, a state agency which advocates for the developmentally disabled, and the Department of Human Services agreed that institutional care for these patients should be replaced as far as possible with community placement in smaller facilities. They believe this will not only be considerably less expensive, but better for the patients.
The closing of JDC inevitably hurts our local economy. It is one of the largest employers in the area and its 400 staff will not be able to easily find equivalent jobs. The economic ripples of shutting JDC down will extend beyond the employees to businesses which supply food, clothing, materials, and transportation.
The consensus that JDC had outlived its usefulness has developed over many years. This issue has been thoroughly studied, debated, and restudied before the Department of Human Services, following the best medical diagnosis, decided to move its support away from large institutions to smaller facilities.
That is the way we want such momentous decisions about our fellow citizens to be made. Instead the elected leaders of state government, Democrats and Republicans, just wielded an ax to deal with the state budget mess. Jacksonville has to defend our right to survive against hasty partisan decision-making. Closing JDC without sufficient time to allow the staff to prepare the residents for a life-changing move, to allow the community to develop the proper homes to accept so many new residents, to allow staff to find jobs, is incompetent politics.
The crisis at JDC is a small part of a much larger crisis in American political morality. The decision by the young State of Illinois in 1847 is being questioned – should the state, that is, all of us, take care of those who can’t take care of themselves? Or is it too expensive?
On March 15, the New Boston Tea Party was clear about why they want to eliminate most social programs: “The locusts are eating, or should we say devouring, the productive output of the hard working taxpayer.”
At the moment, the developmentally disabled at JDC are the locusts. In other places, it’s the unemployed, the homeless, the immigrants, the poor. Conservatives don’t say that the US isn’t rich enough to care for such people; they say all the time that we are the most prosperous nation ever. They say they don’t want to pay for them. That’s why I’m not a conservative.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 8, 2011