SPRINGFIELD (AP) — An Illinois Senate committee approved a measure Wednesday that would allow the state to rehire staff that license and investigate doctors by more than doubling physicians' licensing fees.
The Senate Executive Committee voted 10-5 to raise the cost of three-year physicians' license fees to $700.
The measure comes after budget constraints forced the Department of Financial and Professional Regulations to lay off more than half of the staff in its medical unit.
Illinois officials and the physicians they regulate have been debating for months how to fairly fund the struggling unit. Both sides agree that doctors' licensing fees should go up, but disagree on how much. They also disagree on whether the department overseeing the unit should borrow money to rehire staff and operate more efficiently.
The fee increase authorized by the committee would last through 2018, when the fee would go down to $500.
The Senate proposal also allows the department to borrow $6.6 million from a tax fund and use the money to hire back the 18 employees that were let go Jan. 15.
The proposal received mixed responses from the medical community.
The chief lobbyist for Illinois Hospital Association, A.J. Wilhelmi, said the majority of the 200 hospitals and 23 health systems that his organization represents support the proposed fee increase. Hospitals pay the fees of about 15,000 doctors working in Illinois.
Wilhelmi said the financial troubles of the medical unit are creating a "real crisis" in the state, citing some cases in which doctors decided to leave Illinois because of licensing problems.
Since the layoffs, processing times for licenses for physicians have increased from 16 business days to six months, as only one employee is processing licensing applications.
The Illinois Medical Society however disagrees with the Senate measure.
The group's vice president, Jim Tierney, said the department shouldn't borrow any money. Instead, he said, the state should repay the medical unit the money that previous administrations used in other projects. However, he conferred the group would agree to a $500 fee for a three-year license, an increase that the association has previously suggested.
The medical unit operates solely on doctors' fees. Every year, it processes nearly 2,600 license applications from new doctors and 2,300 temporary-license applications from medical residents. The department also renews almost 46,000 licenses for doctors every three years.
Doctors currently pay $300 for the three-year permit. The fee hasn't increased since 1987.
A House committee recently approved a proposal to raise the fee to $250 a year. This proposal also authorizes the department to borrow more than $6 million.
The House and Senate measures have the support of the Department of Financial and Professional Regulations. Manuel Flores, acting director of the department, testified during the House committee hearing two weeks ago and again Wednesday before the Senate committee.
Both proposals now await floor discussion.