Tobacco Money May Insure Kids
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - This city at the heart of booming Silicon Valley is considering an ambitious and unprecedented plan that would use the national tobacco settlement to make sure every child in town has health insurance.
In a city where even middle-class professionals struggle with the cost of living, six of the 10 members of the City Council back the plan. It would use the settlement money and revenues from California's cigarette tax to insure every one of San Jose's 36,692 children who are not covered.
``There's been a lot of discussion that the region has become so obsessed with wealth that it's lost its heart and soul,'' said Bob Brownstein, policy director for an organization called Working Partnerships, which helped draft the plan. ``It would be nice to have San Jose be the first city in the country to make this kind of commitment.''
Forty-six states and several cities and counties are debating how to spend their shares of the $206 billion owed to them after suing the tobacco industry to recoup the costs of treating sick smokers. Many municipalities plan to use the money for purposes unrelated to health - deficit reduction, schools, capital construction.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Richard Riordan suggested using the city's share to cover lawsuits arising out of a police scandal. The City Council rejected the idea.
In Orange County, the Board of Supervisors voted to use some of its $912 million to build jails and reduce its bankruptcy debt.
San Jose is believed to be the first municipality to try to earmark a portion of its share - $10 million per year for 25 years - to cover all insured children. The plan would cost $1.8 million to launch and about $6 million per year.
Mayor Ron Gonzales had suggested spending the money on senior services, tobacco education and schools. But he tabled that plan Tuesday after the majority of the council backed the children's health insurance initiative. His spokesman, David Vossbrink, said the mayor believes it's worth looking into the idea.
Under the proposal, the city would set aside $2 million each year, and that would be matched by surrounding Santa Clara County, which expects to get $18.5 million per year from the settlement. About $500,000 would come from the cigarette tax revenues and about $2 million more would come from foundations and private donors.
A decision could come as soon as two weeks, when both the city and county are expected to pass their budgets. A simple majority is required at both levels.
``The benefits of this would be enormous, and if we do it, there's a good chance others will follow suit,'' said Councilwoman Margie Matthews, one of the six who favor the plan.
San Jose has not been short on philanthropic missions in the Internet boom, with several dot-com companies recently offering free computer hardware or software to schoolchildren.
But programs like that don't have much impact on Leticia Lopez, a single mother in San Jose who constantly worries that her three sons or daughter might come down with an illness too expensive to treat.
She earns $8 an hour as a janitor and housecleaner and makes too much to get public assistance to help pay for health care. Her jobs don't offer it and she can't afford it after paying $945 a month for a two-bedroom apartment she says is infested with cockroaches and rats, so her family has been uninsured for three years.
``My kids have no protection. They're out there on their own,'' Lopez said. ``We have a lot of fears. They get sick a lot, but I just give them Tylenol or painkillers. I can't take them to the emergency room because I can't afford it.''