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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | ELECTIONS

Bennett Lines Up Against Tobacco Funds Measure

September 01, 2000|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Declaring his position on a key countywide ballot initiative, supervisorial candidate Steve Bennett said Thursday he opposes Measure O, which would wrest $260 million in tobacco settlement money away from Ventura County government and give it to private hospitals.

"I'm opposed to Measure O," said Bennett, a candidate in the Ventura-based 1st District. "Although I think it would be a good idea to share the tobacco money with private hospitals that actually provide indigent care, to deny the public hospital any of the funds clearly makes this an inappropriate initiative."

Measure O, written by Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, would take from the county's control about $10 million a year paid by tobacco companies to settle lawsuits filed by states and give it to Community Memorial and seven other general hospitals for health programs.

Bennett said it makes sense to split the windfall cash with private hospitals that care for the county's poor and uninsured patients. Among private hospitals, records show St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard provides the most free care.

But Bennett said Ventura County, which provides the medical safety net for most indigent residents, should get the bulk of the money. The county maintains it cares for 83% of local indigent patients through its public hospital and clinic system.

"I see voters trying to figure out what's fair. Is it fair for the public hospital that provides a large share of indigent care not to get any of this money?" he said. "Denying the county public hospital access to any of these funds makes it obvious that this isn't an initiative I can support."

Bennett's opponent in the Nov. 7 election, Ventura Councilman Jim Monahan, said he has not yet taken a position on the controversial measure on which Community Memorial had spent $520,000 by June 30.

"I need to know more about it," Monahan said. "I want to learn more about it. I hear conflicting stories, so I don't know who to believe."

Monahan said he disagreed with the county Board of Supervisors' decision not to put Measure O on the ballot despite it having enough voter signatures to qualify. That move was finally made by a Superior Court judge.

"Taking it off the ballot was a mistake," Monahan said. "I think the voters should decide."

In a second contested supervisorial race, 3rd District incumbent Kathy Long of Camarillo has strongly opposed the Community Memorial measure. She could not be reached for comment.

Her challenger, Camarillo Councilman Mike Morgan, said he might oppose Measure O too, but only if county supervisors guarantee the county will spend its tobacco settlement money on health care and agree to share the funds with private hospitals.

"The county has said they're going to put it into health care. But will they agree to sign something that guarantees that?" Morgan said. "If they'll sign something that keeps the amount the same, and if they'll sign an agreement saying they'll offset some of the private hospital expenses for indigent care, then I'd vote against Measure O."

County officials, after spending the first $3.1 million they received in settlement money to pay a federal fine, have vowed to spend the remaining money on health care. But they have not put that pledge into writing in the form of a local ordinance.

Morgan said he would like to see the guarantee as a law similar to the one passed by supervisors to implement statewide Proposition 172, the 1993 initiative that increased the sales tax for use by law enforcement agencies.

For now, the settlement money goes to the county to make up for the government's cost of treating smoking-related illnesses. But the settlement does not require the county to spend it on health care. And backers of Measure O say the supervisors would waste the funds on non-health programs.

Ventura rancher Carolyn Leavens, a 1st District supervisor candidate in 1988, said she believes candidate positions on Measure O could help decide the supervisorial elections, especially in the 1st District.

And she believes Bennett might have an edge with voters by opposing the measure, because the 1st District, which includes Ventura and the Ojai Valley, is traditionally Democratic with liberal leanings.

"Considering the demographics, I think it could help him. I think it could weigh pretty heavily in the outcome, because people are pretty heated about this," said Leavens, a longtime Republican leader. "It's personal in the 1st District because both hospitals [Community Memorial and the county facility] are located there. And if you use these facilities, you get a whole different slant on this issue."

Stripping the county of $10 million a year might resonate particularly with union members and people in need, Leavens said.

"To them, the county hospital represents who is going to take care of them when they're in need," she said. "It's their health security."

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