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TB can be fought a lot cheaper than this

Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

Those wondering why the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies can't set their rivalries aside and become streamlined for the good of the nation might be enlightened by a smaller yet still significant turf war going on right here. Cook County Board President John Stroger has, for the last decade, been trying to eliminate the Suburban Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District, which struggles to survive.

Tuberculosis, an airborne disease, was much feared at the beginning of the 20th century. But TB has largely been brought under control, at least in this country. In 1950, the year after it was founded, the sanitarium district handled 3,251 active cases. Last year, only 123 new cases were reported, a record low.

The district argues that this shows what a good job it is doing, particularly in identifying potential patients and getting them tested. It has hired lobbyists to sell its case in Springfield. Dr. James Gallai, who runs the clinics, points fearfully toward the large influx of immigrants from nations where TB runs rampant, and warns that, without the constant vigilance of the district, TB would once again become the scourge it once was.

We don't buy that. Cook County has a health care system, and we believe that it would handle the demands of preventing and treating TB just as it handles all the other diseases afflicting area residents. When you look hard at the TB district board -- as Sun-Times reporter Steve Patterson did on Monday -- it seems to be a typical political bailiwick, desperately trying to preserve its prerogatives: those TB conferences in Paris, or that charge account at Omaha Steaks.

Does TB get closer attention having an autonomous governmental entity focusing on it? No doubt. But does that make it essential? The question is: Would we create the district today? Would we establish a taxing body that owns land, hires lobbyists, and presides over a $6.5 million budget, to battle a disease that struck 123 people last year?

Of course not. The district is a historical artifact, one that can be safely pared away. Yes, it is one of hundreds of taxing districts that have been allowed to develop over the years in Cook County -- mosquito prevention districts and street lighting districts and the like, each drawing away their drops of blood from the taxpayer. Each asks, on its own, just a little -- the typical homeowner pays only a dollar or two to fight TB. But taken together they form a burden that residents of Cook County are eager to be rescued from.

We have to start somewhere, and abolishing the Suburban Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District is an overdue step in the right direction, a step toward the leaner, more rational and effective government that we all want and deserve. It is a small step, but if we can't get rid of the sanitarium district, we can't get rid of anything.

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