VENTURA COUNTY: Supervisors Plan for Tobacco Settlement Funds
Ventura County Supervisors have proposed a five-year strategic plan that would allocate $10 million from the annual tobacco settlement to county health programs, the Los Angeles Times reports. The ordinance comes two weeks before county voters will cast their votes on Measure O, a ballot initiative that would divert the county's $260 million tobacco settlement to at least three private hospitals, including Community Memorial Hospital. Under the supervisors' ordinance, not-for-profit groups and private hospitals would also be eligible for a portion of the settlement. The plan would include funding for "everything from smoking prevention programs to mental health services" and would be subject to annual review by two oversight committees composed of county residents appointed by the supervisors. Supervisors would split the payments into four categories, with oversight committees deciding how much to allocate to each, but supervisors would have "final say" on fund expenditures. Next year's distributions, which include an extra $5.3 million left from the current year's settlement, would be as follows:
- Community health care programs, such as tobacco education, mental health services and elder care, would receive about $9.1 million, or 59% of the funds. Many of these services are provided by the county;
- Not-for-profit groups "dedicated to health care issues" would receive $1.9 million, or 12% of the money;
- Private hospitals and physicians would net $3.4 million, or 22%, to "offset the cost of indigent care";
- $765,000, or about 5%, would go toward securing grants and putting up money matched by state and federal resources to add as much as $5 million a year.
Countering Measure O
Measure O supporters opposed the supervisors' plan, contending that it "offers no guarantee any money would go to health care beyond the first five years of the ordinance," leaving another 20 years of tobacco money "unaccounted for." In addition, critics argued that supervisors could shift the allocations from one year to the next, eliminating funding for private hospitals after a year or two. "The proposed ordinance is a hollow campaign stunt -- political sleight of hand carefully crafted to say one thing and do another. It's a back-room maneuver by back-bench politicians whose only interest is their own self-preservation," Community Memorial Hospital Director Michael Bakst said. However, the Board of Supervisors countered that the ordinance does not have a "sunset clause" and will not necessarily expire at the end of five years, since the oversight committees can choose to extend the plan on an annual basis "for as many years as they see fit." Board of Supervisors Chair Kathy Long said, "This spells out what areas of health care we will be spending the money on. It sets up a good system of checks and balances and brings to the table nonprofits, private organizations, and helps with the education side. It's a win-win for everyone" (Dirmann, Los Angeles Times, 10/21).