Illinois stops paying local health clinics for STD testing

CHICAGO (AP) — Illinois has notified more than 100 jails, health departments and family planning programs that the state will no longer provide free testing for HIV, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases at state labs, a move that shifts the cost to local jurisdictions.

The change hits local health departments that already are cutting staff, suspending programs and reducing hours in response to a budget stalemate in Springfield that has stalled normal state funding.

The state's two government labs, in Chicago and Carbondale, will no longer accept STD specimens starting this week, according to a Sept. 30 memo from the Illinois Department of Public Health. The notification was first reported by the Springfield bureau of Lee Enterprises newspapers. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the memo from the state health department Tuesday.

Local programs — which include a dozen jails and 16 Planned Parenthood clinics — now must pay for the testing services of commercial private labs or local hospitals. The testing "is being reduced and consolidated at the IDPH Division of Laboratories due to decreased financial and human resources," the memo states.

The change is not related to the state budget impasse between the Legislature and Gov. Bruce Rauner, according to Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold. She said the shift is instead part of an ongoing strategy to refocus the state labs on the more specialized testing involved in identifying and tracing sources of disease outbreaks and on readiness for emerging diseases such as Ebola and biological agents such as ricin.

Last year, the state labs tested 85,000 samples for gonorrhea and chlamydia. They tested 21,000 samples for syphilis and 13,000 for HIV. The total cost was $10.2 million, Arnold said.

Commercial labs can do the tests more cheaply, she said. For example, a gonorrhea and chlamydia test, priced at $13 to $21 by other labs, costs the state labs about $107 for personnel, materials, equipment and data processing, Arnold said.

In response to the change, the Illinois Public Health Association has been negotiating discounts for local public health departments with commercial labs and the University of Illinois, said the group's spokesman, Tom Hughes. The reduced fees will be about $10 to $16 per test.

"It all hits at a difficult time," Hughes said. "It's kind of a perfect storm with the budget impasse and the state not providing the testing services."

Hughes predicted that, despite struggling financially, local health departments will continue to provide STD testing.

"I would be very surprised if local health departments would curtail this type of testing," Hughes said. "STD tests are essential services."