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County to Spend Tobacco Money on Health System

Supervisors approve a $5.5-million bailout, angering anti-smoking advocates.

October 16, 2002|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County supervisors agreed Tuesday to use $5.5 million in tobacco settlement money to bail out the county's cash-strapped public hospital and mental health agency, angering anti-smoking advocates who said the move would gut their own community health programs.

Supervisors insisted they had little choice but to use a portion of the $9.6 million in tobacco funding that the county will receive this year to preserve core health programs.

Providing mental health and hospital care for the poor is one of county government's basic functions, several supervisors said. Board Chairman John Flynn called it "a moral issue."

"You have people who can't speak for themselves who are suffering," Flynn said.

But anti-smoking activists accused the board of raiding money that last year was used to expand and create a host of nonprofit health programs, including initiatives to educate the public about the dangers of smoking. Diverting some of the revenue this year will force cuts in those programs just as they are getting off the ground, advocates said.

David Rodriguez, a spokesman for the county's chapter of the American Lung Assn., said the public's trust in supervisors to use the money wisely "has gone out the window. This money is now being used to backfill budgets."

The county's Behavioral Health Department, which lost $6.6 million in state and federal revenue earlier this year, will receive $1.5 million in tobacco funding. Ventura County Medical Center, the county's public hospital, will get $4 million.

The money flows from the 1998 settlement of a massive lawsuit that several states brought against major tobacco firms. The suit sought reimbursement for millions of dollars that governments spend annually treating uninsured patients with smoking-related illnesses.

Ventura County government's share of the settlement was estimated to reach $250 million over 25 years.

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