The TB tax

February 18, 2013 8:43:50 PM PST
A century ago, tuberculosis killed more Americans than any other disease.

Cook County taxpayers funded public TB treatment long after the lung disease was a widespread health threat. And now there is a $25 million pile of money left over - that's the target of a political fight.

What to do with $25 million?

If you live in suburban Cook County, it is your money - from the tuberculosis tax that you paid for years -- money that under state law had to be used for TB treatment.

So, Monday night, the I-Team has found that the $25 million is still going toward tuberculosis treatment, even though last year there were fewer than 100 active TB patients in Cook County.

Before antibiotics, TB killed half of those left untreated. It has been decades since victims were locked away in sanitariums, but in Cook County, the fight goes on.

"It continues to be an ongoing problem," said Dr. Sandra Martell with the county's public health department.

Monday night in Cook County, public health officials say the number of active TB cases in 2012 was 87.

"We would not classify it as an epidemic," said Martell.

The active pool of money for fighting TB in Cook County is $25 million. That is the amount of money left from the tax paid in Cook County to fund treatment -- a tax that was removed in 2007 when authorities determined that there was no longer a need for it.

"A big question -- why we are still holding the $25 million -- it should have been, it could have been returned to the taxpayers," said Laurence Msall with the Civic Foundation.

The county has 38 employees and spends roughly $5 million a year to monitor and treat those who have TB in suburban Cook County -- the 87 active cases and 550 so-called latent TB -- people who carry the bacteria but have no symptoms and are not contagious.

County TB inspectors make house calls to those who have active cases, making sure they are taking their meds, responding to treatment, and are wearing masks when they go out.

"In terms of TB, I think one of the things -- it's through active surveillance and control that we've gotten to the place that we are today," said Martell.

The I-Team has discovered that TB fund money is not just used for treating disease. TB tax funds pay for landscaping and snow removal -- more than $40,000 a year budgeted for office supplies -- even the brand the $50,000 maintenance vehicle is on the tab this year.

"I don't know that the tuberculosis sanitarium fund -- former sanitarium district funds should be used for the general operating of county government," said Msall.

You're also paying for gas gift cards -- given to some patients to help them get to their appointments.

Patients with unstable home situations are quarantined in two motels -- bills paid with the fund -- and taxpayers purchase grocery store gift cards -- to pay for their food while they're at the motel -- on average a two month stay.

A northwest suburban motel has been checking in county TB patients for years according to a longtime employee who showed me face masks they even give to the housekeeping staff for protecting when cleaning an infectee's room.

The clerk said there was no signage in the motel that tells guests the motel has TB patients, and that "nobody questions me about it" when he was asked if guests ever ask.

People with HIV/AIDS are most at risk here and TB is rampant in some third world nations.

So, Cook County health officials say there does need to be a local tuberculosis effort.

If that $25 million taxpayer endowment goes away, then the Cook County Board would have to fund it annually.

For comparison, each year the City of Chicago spends half as much as the county to manage twice as many active TB cases. Monday night, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle says she would like the $25 million in TB money used to fight all airborne diseases.