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Union, commissioner question Cook County’s plan to cut WIC program

Thursday, April 21, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County officials plan to shut down a program that provides everything from health screenings for pregnant women to infant formula for new moms across the suburbs — but it wont be closed without a fight.

Stephen Martin, Chief Operating Officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health, has told a range of officials the county will no longer provide services funded by the federal Women, Infants and Children Program.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who represents the North Side and suburbs, said Martin told him earlier this week that won’t mean the assistance will dry up for those who rely on the program, which include some of the poorest families in the county.

“If we don’t do it, they’ll give [the WIC money] to other community groups to handle the program,” Suffredin said.

Still, Suffredin says he has questions about what it means to eliminate the program. By one estimate the county’s WIC program, which has offices in the Rolling Meadows, Bridgeview and Markham courthouses and another site in Maywood, has a caseload of 20,000 women and children.

“The issues are, who will provide these services and who will provide the outreach to connect people with these services?’’ Suffredin asked. “Should this have been Dr. Martin’s decision alone? Or should it have gone to the [health] board?”

Officials with the public health department and the board that oversees it could not immediately be reached for comment.

But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31, is planning to fight the move.

“With virtually no rationale and no public input, Cook County is preparing to eliminate these vital services,” AFSCME Local 31 Executive Director Henry Bayer wrote in a letter to county commissioners this week.

The AFSCME note, obtained by the Sun-Times, says Martin decided to discontinue the program. He reportedly said during an April 15 tele-conference with union and program officials that a 10 percent cut in federal WIC funding means the county can no longer afford to administer the program completely from outside funds, as required.

But AFSCME officials said they called the Illinois Department of Human Services, which disburses the federal WIC dollars locally, and were told the county simply hadn’t applied for the grant money, according to the union’s letter.

That claim could not immediately be confirmed.

The current WIC grant money runs out in June. About 70 AFSCME employees, including nutritionists and support staff, will lose their jobs if the county discontinues the local WIC program, according to the union and Suffredin.

Bayer said in the letter that cutting the WIC program goes beyond job cuts.

“Ending the program has repercussions beyond just the families it serves,’’ he wrote. “There is a synergistic relationship between Cook County WIC and Cook County health care services — which serves to improve health care outcomes for program participants. Women come to WIC to obtain food benefits, but then are referred into the County health system. In fact, studies show an important benefit of WIC is that it provides a gateway to healthcare for participants. Referrals work the other way as well, and clients getting health are services at the County find it easy to apply for WIC.”


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