Policy: Labor

Illinois warns parents: You are replaceable

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Labor,Illinois,Health Care

Deborah Teixeira is in danger of literally being fired by the state of Illinois from her job as Juliet's mother. The Peoria resident has been warned that if there are more infractions, the state will send a replacement into her home to take care of her daughter instead.

Teixeira is not alone. Across the state, mothers like her and other people taking care of their family members have been told via threatening official phone calls and letters that they could be replaced if they don’t shape up.

Her predicament comes from the fact that she takes care of an adult daughter with brain damage. She provides Juliet with round-the-clock care at her home thanks to subsidies from Illinois’ Home Services Program.

That’s common: Most of HSP’s estimated 20,000 “caregivers” are just people like Teixeira watching over severely disabled family members.

The program also comes with strings attached, including a new billing system that requires caregivers to call a phone number twice daily to literally clock in and clock out.

Forget to clock out and you are technically overbilling the state. Repeat offenders can be replaced as caregiver — even if they are taking care of their own children in their home.

“If you are not following the rules? Absolutely,” said Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Resources.

She added: “It’s just like any other job. You go there, you clock in. You leave, you clock out. It’s a way of proving you were there.”

The program’s intent, she says, is to root out fraud, not punish families.

That’s not much comfort to participants like Teixeira, who say it is too easy to make an unintentional error. Some participants had no clue they had even made mistakes until they heard from the state.

It is the latest example of how the state bureaucracy has created headaches for the caregivers. The HSP is also the center of a major Supreme Court case, Harris v. Quinn, set to be decided this month. It involves whether the state can force the caregivers to join a union.

The program technically pays caregivers hourly, with the number and rates varying according to the care recipients’ needs. In reality, most caregivers work 24/7 because they’re home all day.

Previously they filled out timesheets but Illinois began phasing in the call-in system earlier this year.

Teixeira started getting phone calls this month from a state official pointing to problems with her timesheets. “Clocking out late is unacceptable regardless of intent, the official told me.”

If this persisted then “my employment would be terminated and I would be replaced by an agency personal assistant.”

It didn’t make any sense, Teixeira thought. Her daughter’s problems would require at least a very experienced certified nursing assistant. How would that save the state money?

Gaye Roberts, who takes care of an adult daughter with cerebral palsy at her home in Peoria, Ill., was told that she too had timesheet problems and could be replaced if this persisted. Roberts simply forgot, she says.

“You get busy. This is a household with five people. This is not a nursing home with hours where you clock in and clock out,” she said.

Others say that while the state did provide some training for the call-in system, it didn’t deliver on other promises.

“We were told as parents that we could also manage our timesheets via a web site and that has never happened,” said one participant who didn’t want their name used.

It is not clear how many of HSP’s estimated 20,000 caregivers were given warnings. Illinois DHS spokeswoman Smith could not cite a figure. But it was enough that the state created a form letter for it.

How widespread is caregiver fraud anyway? Was this a big problem in the first place? That’s not clear either. While the need for prevention is often cited by Illinois, Smith said there were no statistics for fraud readily available.

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