Tobacco money to be used for county health care
Ending speculation since the March election, county officials who strongly opposed Measure A say theyâ€™ll enforce the initiativeâ€™s mandate to spend the local share of tobacco settlement money on health care.
The proposed budget to be presented to the Board of Supervisors on May 21 distributes this yearâ€™s roughly $2.5 million installment of the settlement as required by the ballot measure, county Assistant Administrator Gail Wilcox confirmed.
Measure A garnered more than 62 percent approval in the March 5 election.
â€œWeâ€™re going to comply with the will of the voters,â€ Supervisor Katcho Achadjian said Wednesday.
Officials have given few details on why they changed their stance. They were expected to discuss how to deal with the measure in closed session, where they are allowed to exclude the public from talk about potential litigation. The possibility of suing to block the measure from taking effect was raised by the County Counselâ€™s Office before the election.
But Achadjian said that after the election a consensus formed among board members and county administrators that the measure should be enforced, despite their prior opposition.
The money at issue comes from a settlement by major tobacco companies with 40 states, including California, that ended lawsuits over consumer protection, anti-trust laws and government costs of treating smoking-related illnesses.
Achadjian and Wilcox noted that the lionâ€™s share of the settlement money had already been going to health-care programs, so that part of the county budget wouldnâ€™t change anyway.
â€œSo far, we have spent every penny for health,â€ Achadjian added. â€œI wouldnâ€™t want the money going to anything else.â€
Proponents of the measure, Citizens for a Healthier San Luis Obispo County, argued the money should be required to stay in health care and that some of it should be used to offset losses that hospitals and physicians incur when caring for indigent patients.
But supervisors called the measure a money grab by private doctors and hospitals who are slated to get 29 percent of the settlement funds.
â€œItâ€™s good news,â€ said Dr. Rene Bravo, a San Luis Obispo pediatrician and part of the group of doctors who backed the measure.
â€œTruly the tenor of our discussion with leadership was to work together and make this thing work,â€ he added.
Thatâ€™s a stark change from before the election. County Counsel James Lindholmâ€™s ballot analysis of the initiative stated, â€œThe measure is invalid and will be the subject of litigation if passed.â€
In February 2001, an Orange County Superior Court judge struck down a county challenge against a similar measure approved by 64.6 percent of voters there in November 2000.
The rhetoric against Measure A â€œjust ceased after the election. That was a good sign,â€ said Linda Somers Smith, a San Luis Obispo attorney who represented initiative proponents in litigation over how the measure was described on votersâ€™ ballots.
Supervisor Mike Ryan said that after closed-session discussions, the board directed administrators to find a way to make the measure work.
â€œIf we can tweak it enough and make it work, then why go to litigation?â€ Ryan said.
Wilcox said the biggest budget change from the initiative is the cut in preventive health grants to nonprofit groups. Measure A requires that no more than 15 percent of settlement funds go to that program.
So that pool will be reduced to $375,000 from last yearâ€™s $1 million, Wilcox said.
But itâ€™s still unclear how the county will disburse an estimated $725,000 to emergency-room doctors and hospitals to cover bad debts.
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of questions that we still have to sit down and work out,â€ Bravo said.
Achadjian said heâ€™d like to see that money pay for health care for the indigent who canâ€™t pay private hospitals and doctors. But he expects hearings may be needed to decide which doctors and hospitals are eligible for that money, and for how much of it.
â€œThey didnâ€™t put down anything (in the measure) on exactly how that will work,â€ Ryan said. â€œSo thereâ€™s a lot of things that are yet to come.â€
â€œWe will implement Measure A. Thatâ€™s a given,â€ said Supervisor Peg Pinard. â€œBut what and how it affects everything we donâ€™t know.â€