SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The Illinois Tobacco Quitline has been put on hold as a result of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s decision to suspend $26 million in social service grants.
The State Journal-Register reports more than two dozen people who work for the free state program have been laid off. Calls to the hotline are now answered with a recorded message saying it will be closed until further notice. Its website displays a similar message.
“There are so many people — thousands of them — who are in the midst of quitting, and they are going to be left hanging,” said Kathy Drea, vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest.
Rauner has proposed restoring funding for the program at a reduced rate, but not until the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
The suspension in funding for the Quitline and other programs comes as Illinois faces a $1.6 billion shortfall in the current budget. Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly told the newspaper that a recent bipartisan agreement to plug that hole with more than $1.3 billion in fund transfers was “not a complete solution.”
“Reviewing grants and agency spending has always been part of a comprehensive approach to close the $1.6 billion deficit without raising taxes and without borrowing,” Kelly said.
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, called suspending Quitline funding “the poster child for being short-sighted.”
“This was so illogical,” Cullerton said. “We save money on the Medicaid program when people stop smoking.”
The American Lung Association has operated the program using part of Illinois’ share of annual payments from the 1998 landmark national tobacco settlement. Lawmakers put much of the settlement funds toward Medicaid patients’ medical bills.
Drea said even a short-term suspension in the Quitline could lead to deaths and health problems that could have been prevented.
The Quitline took more than 90,000 calls in the most recent fiscal year that ended June 30. Callers often had weekly conversations with program counselors and were given materials such as nicotine patches and gum if they couldn’t afford them.
Out of program participants who agreed to be surveyed, 43 percent said they weren’t smoking seven months later, according to studies.