Health issues prompt Kirk to seek solutions

Posted: Jan. 9, 2013 10:19 am Updated: Feb. 2, 2013 4:15 am

IT WAS an emotional moment last week when Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois walked the 45 steps up to the Capitol to reclaim his seat in the U.S. Senate on the first day of the 113th Congress.

The 53-year-old Kirk, elected to the Senate seat previously held by President Barack Obama in 2010, suffered a major stroke on the right side of his brain last January that caused partial paralysis on his left side and rendered him blind in one quadrant of his left eye. Doctors said the stroke did not affect his thought process, although he visibly has not fully regained his strength and must use a four-prong cane.

His return followed a year of an intensive, experimental rehabilitation regimen that is often compared to military boot camp because of its intensity. His is an inspiring story of perseverance.

The past year also taught the Republican from Highland Park that the care he received to enable him to return to work is not available to every stroke victim in his home state. Those on Medicaid in Illinois, for instance, are only eligible for 11 rehabilitation sessions after a stroke.

"Had I been limited to that (11 rehab sessions), I would have had no chance to recover like I did," Kirk said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. "So unlike before suffering the stroke, I'm much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face. ... I will look much more carefully at the Illinois Medicaid program to see how my fellow citizens are being cared for who have no income and if they suffer from a stroke."

Kirk admits he now better understands the importance of quality care when faced with a health crisis, yet the perilous financial condition of Illinois means positive changes in the near future are problematic.

A plan to expand the Medicaid program for low-income residents was approved this week by an Illinois House committee, but it has yet to be passed by the General Assembly. The plan, which calls for the federal government to pay all new Medicaid costs for three years starting in 2014, would help cover 600,000 uninsured residents eligible for Medicaid.

Still, being covered isn't the only issue. The State Journal-Register in Springfield reported Monday that the state's Medicaid patients continue to go without important medicines because of a budget-cutting law enacted last July. The four-prescription policy is designed to save the cash-strapped state $180 million in prescription-drug costs this fiscal year.

The newspaper reported limits are being phased in by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, and eventually will affect 200,000 Illinois adults and children who receive prescription-drug coverage through Medicaid.

It has been a difficult road back to the Senate for Mark Kirk, but he has earned admiration for his courage and determination.

Being able to help make sure others who face similar health issues have the same opportunities to rehabilitate their lives will make the journey even more remarkable.