Originally created 01/11/00

Governor to request more health care funding



ATLANTA -- Gov. Roy Barnes will ask the General Assembly today to earmark $87 million from a nationwide tobacco settlement this year to improve health-care delivery, according to budget documents released Monday.

The money would be divided among several causes whose advocates have vied for a piece of the pie, including combating smoking, providing health insurance to more uninsured Georgians, reducing the waiting list for home- and community-based health services and putting a nurse in every public school in the state.

"I feel like we've got a good balance," said Renay Blumenthal, the governor's policy director.

Mr. Barnes, who will present his fiscal 2001 budget to a joint session of the House and Senate this morning, wants to dedicate one-third of Georgia's share of the tobacco settlement money to rural economic development.

The rest would go toward health care, including $20.8 million for anti-smoking programs and $16.6 million to reduce several waiting lists for home- and community-based services.

Another $7.7 million would go to expand Georgia's Medicaid program to cover pregnant women and infants with incomes up to 235 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $38,657 per year for a family of four. Another $30 million would be used to hire more than 1,800 nurses, enough to give every public school in the state at least a part-time nurse.

After an intense competition for a share of the tobacco money, some health advocates aren't satisfied.

June Deen, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of Georgia, said the federal Centers for Disease Control has estimated it would take more than $40 million for the state to undertake an effective anti-smoking program.

"Tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in this country, and we know we could make a difference," she said. "But we have to be prepared to adequately fund the program if we want to get results."

"We must not forget that the purpose of this tobacco settlement was to help treat tobacco-related ailments and prevent future tobacco use," added Linda Lee, chairman of the Coalition for a Healthy and Responsible Georgia, a consortium of organizations working to reduce tobacco use.

Sen. Eddie Madden, who chaired a legislative task force on the waiting lists during the summer, said he's delighted that Mr. Barnes has the issue on his radar screen but noted that the governor's budget would reduce only the largest waiting list, the 1,260 mentally retarded Georgians without a group home placement, by about 10 percent.

"We're still a long way from where we want to be," said Mr. Madden, D-Elberton.

Ms. Blumenthal said Mr. Barnes wants to set aside as reserves $40 million of the $190 million the state expects to receive from the tobacco settlement during fiscal 2001. That money could become available for health programs, she said, after it becomes clear whether Georgia will get the full amount projected.

Mr. Barnes' office also released several other health-related initiatives Monday that would be funded through the general budget, notably $39 million to increase reimbursement rates to physicians, dentists, hospitals and nursing homes, and $300,000 for a new Office of Children's Advocate to act as a watchdog over the state's child protection agency.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.