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VENTURA COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

No on Measure O

Voters should respond to it the same way they would answer any stranger who walked up and said, "Give me the cash from your personal bank account because I will spend it more wisely than you would."

October 15, 2000

The only thing missing from the Measure O campaign is the Jolly Roger flying over Community Memorial Hospital. The brazen ballot initiative cooked up by its executive director is pure piracy, designed to plunder $260 million from public coffers and hand it over to Community Memorial and a few other private hospitals.

The measure specifically prohibits publicly owned Ventura County Medical Center, which provides about 90% of the care to the county's poor and uninsured, from receiving a dime.

Voters should say no to Measure O just as strongly as they would say no to any stranger who walked up and said, "Give me the cash from your personal bank account because I will spend it more wisely than you would."

Backers of Measure O have two powerful weapons and are using them cleverly.

The first is the public's distrust of elected officials. Measure O proponents argue that the county Board of Supervisors can't be trusted to spend this money on health care. In truth, the board did spend the first $3 million the county received to pay a debt. Faced with Measure O, the board has since committed to spend the remaining $257 million on a variety of health care programs. This misstep left the county vulnerable to an anti-government campaign, which Community Memorial is playing to the hilt.

The second weapon is money. A month before election day, Measure O backers had already spent $1.6 million--about what Community Memorial spent in 1996 to block construction of a new wing at the rival county hospital. With $260 million to gain, the private parties may well spend considerably more. But the law prohibits county officials from spending any money to oppose the measure. A coalition of private citizens has raised more than $60,000 to speak out against it--barely a pea-shooter compared to Community Memorial's big guns.

The money at stake is Ventura County's share of the $246-billion settlement that 46 states won by suing the big tobacco companies. The lawsuit was filed in hopes of beginning to reimburse the billions that taxpayers have spent over the years to care for poor and uninsured residents who got sick because they smoked. Ventura County's share of the settlement will arrive at the rate of about $10 million a year over the next 25 years.

If passed, Measure O would remain in effect for the entire 25 years unless undone by another ballot initiative or overturned in court. In fact, if Measure O passes, the county would have little choice but to spend even more on what would likely be a long and costly legal battle.

Measure O would give the entire $260 million to a few local hospitals, allegedly to pay off bad debts they incurred by treating patients who can't pay. Next, doctors would be similarly reimbursed. Community Memorial says any money left over would also be used for health programs for the elderly and children.

In fact, according to an analysis by the county counsel's office, Measure O would not reimburse private hospitals for their charitable care to the poor but for bad debts left unpaid by any patient. And the money would be distributed based on a formula that apparently helps only a few of the county's seven private general hospitals.

If Measure O passes and this public money is delivered into private hands, voters and taxpayers will have no further say over how it is actually spent. If Measure O fails and the money remains in public hands, it would be spent with full public scrutiny and accountability.

Should the tobacco settlement be spent on health care?

Yes, it should. The Board of Supervisors has committed to do so and should back that up with an ordinance that directs most of the money to the county's own safety net for the poor--Ventura County Medical Center and the clinic network--while designating a fair portion to reimburse private hospitals for the relatively small amount of care they provide to those who can't pay. Supervisors have already held public forums to determine what other health-related needs should be addressed with these funds.

But hand it over to private corporations and leave the county hospital and clinics nothing?

No way. We endorse a no vote on Measure O.

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