By Maureen Foertsch McKinney
A law that takes effect next month will allow Illinois’ independent homeless youth – including recent Central American immigrants – to give consent for nonemergency medical treatment.
Under House Bill4501, which was approved unanimously by the General Assembly in May and signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in June – medical providers can choose whether to give care. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Illinois has an estimated 10,000 unaccompanied minors between 14 and 18, which are the ages covered by the legislation.
The issue arose because health care providers at Chicago Public Schools clinics addressed the problem with the homeless coalition, says Jennifer Cushman, a lobbyist and policy specialist for the organization. “This is basic health care,” she says. “For example, there was a student at a public school that they suspected may have strep throat, but before this law, they weren’t even able to do a test to determine if they had strep throat. You know these kids are basically in a situation where they’re not getting care…. They can become sicker and eventually have to go to the emergency room, which can lead to longer-term chronic health conditions.
“When I started to talk to lawmakers about the bill, there were questions. You’re talking about minors; you’re talking about consent to health care. These are things that can touch off controversy, … and these are things that we want to be careful about making decisions about, of course,” she says. “Some questions came up about the age limit. In the original legislation, we didn’t have a minimum age.”
Cushman says, “Once we ironed some of those things out, it sort of a became a no-brainer type of bill. … We kind of felt it was something we needed covered in Illinois, it’s just that no one had addressed it yet.”
Chief Senate sponsor Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, says: “A number of other states are already doing this, by the way – 16 other states, including Indiana.
“And it’s not controversial, either, because we specifically made sure that it doesn’t affect a minor’s ability to obtain an abortion or birth control or other forms of contraception. So it’s not in any way trying to change what is status quo on those things. This really wasn’t a hot-button issue; it really is making sure that these homeless youth are getting access to the health care system.”
Homelessness often occurs for youth because of addiction or having parents who are abusive. “One or more parents may be incarcerated or missing. We’ve even worked with youth whose parents are deceased, and there are no other family members to care for them,” Cushman says. “There are a number of reasons youth do become unaccompanied, become homeless. Sometimes they’re locked out of their homes. There’s definitely a number of homeless youth who identify as LGBT. And sometimes the parents actually kicked them out for that reason. Some have already experienced or witnessed trauma, which can be a health issue in and of itself.”