The Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District (TB district) came one step closer to going the way of past TB districts in Chicago and many other areas with the unanimous passing of a state senate bill to eliminate the district last week.

If the bill passes through the Illinois House of Representatives, the TB district’s staff, as well as its facilities in Forest Park, Des Plaines and Harvey would be transferred to the Cook County Department of Public Health.

“We’d like to see the transition be seamless not only for residents but for employees (of the TB district)” said Oak Park Sen. Don Harmon (D-39), the sponsor of the bill. According to Harmon, the bill leaves a one year transition period for the integration of TB treatment into the county health system. Harmon said that though it is not mandated by the senate bill, it is his hope that officials will explore ways to turn the current TB facilities into treatment centers for a wide range of respiratory diseases.

“The immediate contemplation is for preparation for other emerging respiratory diseases like avian flu or SARS,” he said, noting that TB often comes along with several corollary diseases which the current TB district facilities are not equipped to treat.

The current bill does not mark the first attempt to eliminate the TB district. A similar push began in 2004 after the Chicago-based Civic Federation advocacy group criticized the district for maintaining its annual tax levy of about $6 million despite enjoying a $9 million surplus after selling a property in Hinsdale.

The closing gained the support of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, with Commissioner Tony Peraica serving as its most vocal proponent, calling the TB district’s presence on the tax rolls “unjustifiable.”

Despite its support, however, the bill failed to make its way through the legislature as the TB district again angered its opponents by hiring an army of lobbyists to push for it to remain open.

Still, some compromise did emerge from the battle. The district agreed to reduce its tax levy to virtually nothing on alternate years. It received about $100,000 last year before hiking its levy back up to $3.5 million this year.

Stephen Martin, the CEO of the Cook County Department of Public Health, was appointed to the district’s board of directors in an attempt to bolster collaboration with the county.

The board’s president, Ray McDonald, said he believes the district has made great strides since these changes and should be given the chance to prove itself.

“The fear is that if we get absorbed we might not do as good a job,” he said in March, noting that though the district only treated about 120 active TB cases last year, its staff also treats about 2,500 patients with latent TB, about 10 percent of which would turn into active cases if not treated.

TB districts were formed by many municipalities in the first half of the 20th century due to outbreaks of the disease which were attributable in large part to waves of immigration into big cities.

Though the districts have since fallen out of favor in all but a few areas of the country, McDonald feels that a recent spike in TB cases in suburban Cook County due to the movement of immigrants into the suburbs has revived the need for the district.

Still, McDonald said that there are no plans to hire lobbyists to fight against the current bill. “I just don’t think it would be the proper use of money,” he said.

Harmon said he was unaware of any opposition to the bill in the House, describing his mood as “hopeful” regarding its chances, but noting that “you can’t predict the actions of the legislature.”

Civic Federation president Laurence Msall said he was pleased to see the district’s closing finally on the horizon.

“This will both remove an unnecessary property tax burden and also allow for the county health services to more comprehensively address any TB cases,” he said.

Though the bill leaves the county with the option of imposing its own tax for the treatment of TB, Msall said he is hopeful that this will not be necessary.

“The legislation merely reiterates the authority of the county in terms of tax levying. I wouldn’t assume there is going to be a separate levy. In fact, we’d want to see the case for why a separate levy would be needed,” he said.