Supervisors Weigh In on Tobacco Funds
Despite concerns from members of an advisory panel, a majority of Ventura County supervisors back a proposal to give county-run health care programs most of $8 million in tobacco settlement funding to be distributed this year.
The county's public hospital and other public health programs are the only source of health care for thousands of uninsured county residents and therefore should be the biggest beneficiary of the tobacco settlement windfall, supervisors said.
What's more, the settlement money is intended to reimburse the county for years of free health care services, supervisors said Tuesday.
That's why the county should receive about 60% of the funding, with the remaining 40% divided among private health care providers and nonprofit groups, Supervisor Kathy Long said.
"The board clearly wanted to structure this in a regional way that would help both public and private providers of health care," Long said.
County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston outlined the breakdown in a report delivered Monday to an advisory group overseeing the distribution of tobacco money. Two other county supervisors said they agree with Long.
"I've always felt that was the right breakdown," Supervisor Judy Mikels said. "It makes sense for the county, which has the larger share of responsibility for providing the safety net, to have a larger stake in the pie."
Supervisor Steve Bennett called Johnston's recommended distribution a good starting point.
"This is what the board originally identified as appropriate," Bennett said. "We need to try it, get feedback and then evaluate the programs after we get going."
But members of the advisory panel, appointed by the Board of Supervisors, have made clear they do not intend to simply rubber-stamp Johnston's recommendations.
The 11-member committee voted overwhelmingly Monday to delay any decision on how to apportion funds until they get more information on exactly how the dollars would be spent.
Divisions are still apparent over how the money should be distributed, with some members voicing suspicion the county will use the money to pay bills rather than to expand health care programs.
"The county does a lot of good things and it is the safety net for health care," advisory board member Nancy Borchard said. "But the [private] hospitals also have pressing needs. I'd like to hear more about how many indigent people the county serves and compare that to the private hospitals."
Long said the panel will have influence in helping the board set funding priorities. For instance, if committee members believe the county should use much of its share to expand mental health programs, they could make that recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, she said.
"They do have some discretion," she said. "No one wants a rubber stamp."
At least one supervisor says the board should wait until the committee has made its own recommendations.
"We should let the committee act on its own," Supervisor John Flynn said. "They are intelligent, fair-minded people. . . . And after it goes through t*hat process, then let the county work on it."
Flynn said, however, he hopes the committee does not decide to fund every program that comes before it.
"I do hope they don't turn this whole thing into a grab bag," Flynn said.
Supervisor Frank Schillo was unavailable for c*omment Tuesday.
$250 Million Over 25 Years
The money comes from the county's participation in a states' lawsuit against major tobacco manufacturers. Ventura County is to receive about $10 million a year, or about $250 million over 25 years. The citizens' committee has been meeting since March, hearing presentations by various community groups hoping to get a slice of the funding.
After criticism that it has been moving too slowly, the advisory committee took several significant steps on Monday. It agreed to distribute about $8 million in the coming year, leaving $15.7 million in a reserve account for now. Since 1999, the county has received roughly $25 million of the tobacco settlement money.
And, following committee Chairman David Maron's recommendation, the panel created two subcommittees that will focus on specific tasks. One will review information on health care needs, and the other will develop criteria for evaluating funding requests.
By meeting informally and more frequently than the full committee, the ad hoc groups will help speed the process of getting the tobacco settlement dollars into the community, Maron said.
"It's a more efficient way to get us moving along," he said.
Recommendations are expected to go to the Board of Supervisors by September.