Monday, April 25, 2011

Tobacco Money at Center of Auditor Hearing

A diabetic calling for better state supported health insurance, a researcher highlighting the need to fight the illnesses caused by tobacco use and a public health advocate looking for more funding for smoking cessation programs were among a long list of individuals giving testimony today at a hearing focused on how to best spend the tobacco settlement money still coming into Pennsylvania.

The hearing in Pittsburgh was convened by State Auditor General Jack Wagner who contends the state legislature and the governor are diverting the $370 million annual payment to Pennsylvania without getting the proper public input. When the fund was first established in 2001, Governor Tom Ridge and the state legislature held public hearings and decided to dedicate all of the funds to health related issues. Percentages were laid out FOR health care, cancer research, senior care, tobacco use cessation efforts and to build a public health endowment fund. In recent years the state legislature has been diverting those funds to the general fund and non-health related causes. A large portion this year will go to an economic development loan fund.

The shift was brought into the spotlight when funding for the adultBasic program was cut. Wagner wants lawmakers to either be put back the funds or hold public hearings on the reallocation. “We again want a public discussion, because your opinion has always been important in terms of the use of public money,” said Wagner.

Last week the state received $370 million from the tobacco settlement fund. Over the next 15 years the payments will slip to an estimated $355 million a year.

About 40,000 Pennsylvanians lost their low cost healthcare in January when the adultBasic program was ended. The state continues to offer the Special Care program but recipients complain it comes with higher costs and fewer benefits. Former adultBasic recipient Cynthia Brazen of Overbrook is 53-years old and has been fighting diabetes for more than 40 years. “I am a responsible citizen, tax paying, working home owner,” said Brazen, “I have checked my options and I have none, therefore I will rely on the charity of doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies and, of course, soon the state of Pennsylvania.” Brazen believes that if she does not get the treatment she needs she will go blind due to complications from her diabetes and will be forced to go on welfare.

Nick Balandiat says he has a hereditary blood condition that requires frequent lab tests and trips to the doctor. After losing adult Basic he bought into Special Care but says he is worried about the limits on office visits and a cap on spending on lab fees. “I just want insurance that is decent that I can afford,” Balandiat told the Auditor General.

Catholic Charities downtown says it has seen a 25% increase in the number of calls it gets from individuals trying to find out if they are eligible for the group’s free health care. They have also seen a 10% increase since January in people coming through their doors for treatment. The Consumer Health Coalition is reporting similar increase in calls for help in finding free and low cost care. “There is no worse job right now than to work on our help line,” said Coalition Executive Director Beth Heeb, “nine times out of ten they can’t help [the caller].” Heeb says the best they can do is send the caller to an already overwhelmed clinic.

United Way of Allegheny County Executive Director Bob Nelkin went before Wagner to express his belief that funding for tobacco use cessation programs must be restored if not increased. When the tobacco fund was first approved more than $51 went to those programs, now, that number is down to $14 million. Nelkin says the money should be seen as an investment in the future that will, “pay off in a big, big way for Pennsylvania taxpayers, and people paying health care premiums.” Nelkin says a recent study by the CDC shows Pennsylvanians spend more than 5 billion dollars a year on tobacco related illnesses.

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