Panel Agrees on Division of Tobacco Funds
Long-awaited dollars to help Ventura County's doctors and hospitals recover the costs of unpaid medical bills are on their way, along with money to expand health-care programs.
An advisory committee agreed that the county's public hospital and county-run health programs should receive the largest share--at least $4 million--of the $8 million in tobacco settlement funds available this year.
Another $1.8 million should be divided between private hospitals and doctors to cover uncompensated health care for treating uninsured patients, and $1.2 million should be earmarked for tobacco education and prevention programs, the group decided last week. Members of the committee said they are relieved that after five months of meetings, and criticism that they were moving too slowly, their work is nearly done.
"Considering what had to be accomplished, this was a good way to go," said David Maron, committee chairman. "We are setting precedents for future years."
The 11-member tobacco advisory committee was appointed by the county Board of Supervisors to make recommendations on how the county should spend an estimated $8 million to $10 million received each year.
The money flows from the 1998 settlement of a massive lawsuit that several states brought against major tobacco firms. The suit sought reimbursement for millions of dollars that governments spend annually treating uninsured patients with smoking-related illnesses.
Ventura County government's share of the settlement was estimated to reach $250 million over 25 years. But the Board of Supervisors, under fire from private health care providers, passed a law last year agreeing to share the wealth.
The recommendations go to County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston, who may make revisions before sending the report to the supervisors for final approval.
"Most of what they said is reasonable," Johnston said. "But I've got to look at the whole package before I say everything is right."
The 50% share that the county would receive is lower than the 60% cut Johnston has advocated. But Maron said the county's percentage could climb as high as 55% once it is determined which agencies will administer smoking prevention programs.
Tensions have simmered for months over how much money should be set aside for county-run programs. Some committee members suggested the county use the money to head off a budget shortfall instead of expanding health-care services.
But Charles Padilla, a hospital administrator, suggested that the time had come to stop haggling over percentages.
"Let's get this money out there," said Padilla, chief administrator at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard and St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo. "There is nothing here that is a waste of money. Even though it's not perfect, it's the best we could come up with."
County-run health-care programs would, by far, receive the largest chunk of cash under the group's recommendations.
Ventura County Medical Center is slated to receive $2.6 million. Another $1.4 million is targeted for dental clinics, mental health services, public health programs and 50 heart-starting electric paddles to be placed at public facilities.
Private doctors and hospitals, meanwhile, were allotted $900,000 for each group.
Those breakdowns won the unanimous approval of the advisory group. But committee members split on how much money should be earmarked for smoking prevention programs.
The committee defeated, on a 6-5 vote, a motion to allot $1.6 million, but unanimously agreed to $1.2 million. That figure could rise when the committee meets again to decide how to hand out the $1 million that remains from the $8 million, Maron said.
The group recommended that funding for a psychiatric residency program requested by county Behavioral Health Director David Gudeman be rejected.
Maron told committee members that Gudeman did not provide him with enough information on how the program would be run to merit the $500,000 request.