As is the case nearly every year, Illinois residents are subject to a number of new laws today — the first day of the state's fiscal year.
Some of those laws, such as mandating that drivers aged 18-21 pass an adult driver education course before receiving a license, and replacing a commercial driver's instruction permit with a "commercial's learner's permit," clearly fall under the "housekeeping" items that the General Assembly deals with every year.
But other new laws are generating some debate, at least locally. For example, beginning today, clinical psychologists with a doctoral degree may begin prescribing drugs to their patients.
Introduced by Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, as Senate Bill 2187, clinical psychologists who meet certain education and training standards may — with a license — prescribe medicine. SB 2187, which passed by wide margins in both houses of the General Assembly, makes Illinois the third state, behind New Mexico and Louisiana, to allow patients to get medication from a psychologist.
Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, who voted yes on SB 2187, said the new law will now enable mental patients in rural areas — where psychiatrists are often rare — a better chance to receive the medication that can help them manage their illness.
Righter said the law sets limits on the types of drugs psychologists can prescribe; mandates psychologists to have a collaborative agreement with a physician; and prohibits them from prescribing to seniors, children, pregnant women and people with serious medical conditions.
But Heartland Human Services executive director Jeff Bloemker, who has a psychiatrist on his staff, questions the wisdom of allowing individuals without medical training to prescribe medications.
"Prescribing psychotropic drugs is almost like an art," Bloemker said. "That's where the medical training that psychiatrists receive becomes critical.
"Concerns that psychologists may not have the appropriate medical training are legitimate," Bloemker added.
Dr. Jerry Boyd, a clinical psychologist from Charleston who maintains an office in Teutopolis, said he questions whether anyone close to Effingham will take advantage of the new law.
"It will not affect my practice," Boyd said. "I don't see myself giving up three years of my practice to get the necessary education."
But Boyd added there are other psychologists who have prepared for the possibility of prescribing medications, first by earning a master's degree in psychopharmacology and then by serving a year-long internship.
"In theory, it is supposed to help underserved populations," he said. "But everybody I know who has prepared for this will likely practice in a metropolitan area."
Boyd said it's understandable that the medical community was slow to embrace the new law.
"Understandably, it's risky to bring another person into this type of situation," he said. "It will certainly drive up malpractice insurance rates."
Also pointing to concerns about who would best distribute medical care, local public health officials are skeptical about a new law that allows dentists to distribute flu shots.
“I like the fact that this gives more access to a flu shot, but my hesitation is that there might be safety issues,” said Rebecca Merten, public health administrator of the Effingham County Health Department.
According to Merten, trained nurses are on hand at the health department when a flu shot is administered to monitor a patient for any allergic reaction.
“Even if we do a walk-in or drive-through clinic, we have a checklist about allergies,” said Merten. “I don't know that a dentist could do that checklist.”
Merten was quick to point out that she is unsure of the emergency training at a dentist's office. Calls to several local dental offices were not returned Monday.
On the education front, the compulsory age – or required age – to start a child in kindergarten was pushed back from 7 to 6 years old.
“This will have zero effect on us,” said Teutopolis Unit 50 Superintendent Bill Fritcher. “The schools in this area provide a good product, and I think parents want to get their kids into that system.”
Fritcher said that in his 25 years in education, he has never seen a parent waiting until their child was 7 to put them into school.
Fire departments in the state will also be affected by some of the new laws.
Municipalities can now borrow more money from the state at no or low interest for truck and apparatus purchases as part of the Fire Truck Revolving Loan Program. The previous borrowing cap for the loan program was $250,000, however the new law has raised this cap to $350,000.
Departments can use loans through this program to purchase fire trucks, engines and all-terrain vehicles often used to fight wildfires. The increased borrowing cap is meant to reflect the increased cost for this type of equipment.
The program is typically used by downstate rural fire departments with limited budgets that need new equipment.
Joe Holomy, chief of the Effingham Fire Department, said the program is not something his department currently needs to use because their truck was purchased less than a year ago.
He said he is a strong supporter of the program and that the change will be a great benefit to fire districts working with small budgets.
Holomy said there are districts in Illinois working with budgets of $10,000 and struggling to pay for every aspect of running a successful fire department. Others, he said, have 30-year-old trucks that have a typical lifespan of 20 years.
“They are trying to use pancake breakfasts to stay afloat,” he said.
Within the state 92 departments have used the program, Holomy said, and so far no one has defaulted on their payments. As payments on the loans are made, they go back into the program to help sustain it.
Chris Overbeck, chief of the Montrose Fire District, agreed with Holomy and said the adjusted program will help rural departments. He said his district is not looking to purchase a truck any time soon so it will be a while before they use the program.
Johnathon Paholke, chief of the Shumway Fire Protection District, said his department is also not looking to purchase a truck soon. He said he will keep the program in mind down the road when they might need to make an equipment purchase.
Matt Kulesza, chief of the Watson Fire Protection District, agreed the loan program will help departments with smaller budgets, but he said the loan can be difficult to get.
He said those in charge of the program can get so many replies for a loan that getting one is not guaranteed.
Kulesza said his department will likely still apply for the program though they have not received loans with past attempts.