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The State Journal- Register (Springfield, IL)
Hundreds of Springfield-area athletes hitting hard on the gridiron and scoring points and winning races in other high school sports may be added to the list of potential victims of the state's almost two-year budget crisis.
Citing millions of dollars in unpaid bills by the state as a major factor in their decisions, officials at Springfield's Memorial and Medical Center and HSHS St. John's Hospital say they plan to stop providing athletic trainers to nine area high schools for football and all other sports by the end of this academic year.
A tradition that had lasted up to 30 years looks like it will end, in large part, because of a record backlog of more than $130 million in combined bills owed to the two not-for-profit institutions by the state's group health insurance program for state workers, retirees and dependents.
"The state budget crisis is causing all of us to make difficult decisions," Dr. Charles Lucore, chief executive officer of 439-bed St. John's, told The State Journal-Register. "This was something we couldn't continue to do."
Three athletic trainers at the St. John's AthletiCare sports medicine program and eight athletic trainers and an exercise physiologist at Memorial's SportsCare program are expected to be laid off in the next two months, officials from the hospitals said.
The schools affected are Southeast, Riverton and Petersburg PORTA, which had been served by St. John's, and Springfield High, Lanphier, Auburn, Athens, Williamsville and New Berlin, which had been served by Memorial.
"It's a business decision we reached over a long period of careful consideration," said Evan Davis, administrator for orthopedic services and neuromedicine at 500-bed Memorial.
Athletic trainers aren't required by the Illinois High School Association or state law to be present at games or practices, though evaluations by trainers or other medical professionals are required before an athlete who has sustained a suspected concussion can be sent back into a game.
But local school officials said the presence of trainers for advice and hands-on care has become expected by schools and the public in recent years - especially when sports such as football, soccer, wrestling and basketball are involved and more is known about the long-term risks of concussions.
"Cutting back could be an option, but I don't think we could go without," said Matt Brue, superintendent of the PORTA district.
Davis said the no- or low-charge service to the schools "doesn't cover the cost" for Memorial even though hospital officials have enjoyed serving the athletes and their families and the hospital received revenue when athletes sought care at Memorial after an injury.
Laying off the eight trainers and an exercise physiologist - who have bachelor's and master's degrees and work with athletes to prevent and deal with injuries - will save Memorial about $500,000 per year, Davis said.
Lucore wouldn't say how much St. John's could save in the decision.
The fact that Memorial is owed $81.6 million by the state was a factor in the hospital's decision, Davis said, adding that publicly funded and private insurance plans continue to cut back on what they pay hospitals for health care.
St. John's, which will continue to provide no-cost trainers for student athletes at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School and Lincoln Land Community College this fall and beyond, is owed $49 million for state employee health care bills that are as much as 1½ years overdue, Lucore said.
He said St. John's is willing to consider arrangements in which other schools could lease the services of an AthleticCare trainer, avoiding the need to lay off one or more trainers, if contract terms could be worked out.
St. John's and Memorial officials said they probably wouldn't reverse their decisions on athletic trainers, even if the Democratically controlled General Assembly and Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, reach a compromise in the next month or two for what would be their first comprehensive state budget in about two years.
That's because financial pressures on hospitals persist, with changes looming at the federal level, they said.
The American Health Care Act, passed by the Republican-controlled U.S. House, pending in the Senate and supported by President Donald Trump, would likely reduce the number of low-income Illinoisans covered by Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, hospital officials said.
At the same time, they said, the AHCA would keep in place the ACA's Medicare spending cuts, leaving hospitals in Springfield and elsewhere in the state with billions of dollars in Medicare reductions between now and 2025.
Athletic directors and superintendents, who said they don't blame the Springfield hospitals for the decisions, are looking into options that probably will cost their schools more money at a time when schools also are owed vast amounts of money by the state.
"It's total fiscal destruction," said Darren Root, superintendent of Auburn School District 10. "It always seems to come back on the shoulders of the schools."
The Auburn district, which is owned $667,000 by the state, has paid Memorial $9,000 per year for essentially full-time services from a SportsCare trainer, Root said.
Athletic trainers typically earn $40,000 to $50,000 per year, Auburn football coach Dave Bates said.
When asked whether the Auburn district can afford to pay more for a service that athletes and their parents have come to expect, Root said it would be difficult to justify.
"I haven't bought a textbook since 2008," he said.
Rick Sanders, director of school support for Springfield District 186, said, "We've been really fortunate and spoiled" by St. John's and Memorial. "They've been great to us, they really have."
District officials are looking into alternatives and potential costs for services the district previously didn't pay for.
The goal is to have some athletic trainer services in place, even if trainers aren't present as much as in the past, by the time practices for football and other sports begin in August, Sanders said.
Springfield Clinic is willing to hire some of the trainers who will be displaced and provide at least a reduced level of service to the affected schools at no charge, according to Mark Kuhn, the clinic's chief administrative officer.
But if schools want the same, almost full-time level of services they received from St. John's and Memorial, they will have to pay, Kuhn said.
The for-profit clinic is owed a record $75 million-plus by the state, but also is poised to recoup some expenses when injured athletes turn to the clinic for scans, surgery, doctor visits and other services, he said.
The clinic already provides trainers to 16 area schools, including Rochester, Chatham Glenwood and Pleasant Plains high hchools and the University of Illinois Springfield.
"These are typically free or reduced-price services," said Benjamin McLain, Springfield Clinic's director of rehabilitation services.
The PORTA district, which is owed $668,000 by the state and operates on a $12 million annual budget, hasn't decided what it will do to deal with the potential loss of its trainer, Brue said.
Parents have enjoyed the trainer's assistance and advice as their children have undergone therapy for injuries, he said.
Brue said he wrote a letter to the district's state representative, Tim Butler, R-Springfield, complaining that PORTA's potential loss or reduction in athletic trainer services is another ramification of a state budget crisis that should have been resolved by politicians by now.
"I don't know if they understand it," Brue said.
- Contact Dean Olsen: email@example.com, 788-1543, twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.
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