Lawmakers act to protect Healthy Maine fund

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff
Posted Sept. 24, 2008, at 11:59 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Fund for a Healthy Maine will come under closer legislative scrutiny if recommendations approved Wednesday by a panel of Maine lawmakers are adopted.

The recommendations, endorsed by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, will be presented today to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

Every year since 1998, when 49 states settled a lawsuit with major tobacco manufacturers aimed at recouping some of the money spent on treating smoking-related illnesses, the Fund for a Healthy Maine has received $50 million to $55 million from the tobacco companies.

This year marked the first of 10 years in which the amount will increase by about $10 million before reverting to its present level. The annual payments are projected to continue in perpetuity.

State law requires that a majority of the money be spent on public health measures, such as tobacco prevention and cessation, prescription assistance for senior citizens, and day care programs. But recent hard budgetary times have brought the Fund for a Healthy Maine under increasing pressure for a broader slate of projects, and lawmakers, state officials and public health advocates agree it is important to both protect the fund and ensure that the programs it supports are performing effectively.

In a 10-3 vote, the Health and Human Services Committee accepted a three-pronged proposal submitted by Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry. The proposal would:

•Authorize a performance evaluation of all programs funded by the Fund for a Healthy Maine. The evaluation would include a comparison of Maine’s use of the tobacco settlement funds for public health programs to that of other states. It would be performed by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, a publicly funded program established in 2005 that performs independent reviews of state programs.

• Establish a temporary sub-committee to review all legislation that proposes funding through the Fund for a Healthy Maine. Members also would map out a strategy for making the most of the increased annual payments for the next 10 years “without falling off a cliff” when they end, as Raye said. The bipartisan panel would include three lawmakers from the HHS committee and two members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

• Establish a permanent rule requiring that proposals approved by other legislative committees also be reviewed by the Health and Human Services Committee if the proposals would tap the Fund for a Healthy Maine. Committees with oversight of the Education, Public Safety and other departments have sent proposals to the full Legislature in the past without Health and Human Services Committee members having any say.

Three committee members rejected the OPEGA evaluation but endorsed the other two recommendations. The committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, said that in the absence of specific complaints or concerns, it would be a waste to spend taxpayer money on an OPEGA study.

Raye, who also serves on the Government Operations Committee, which oversees the OPEGA panel, argued that a general review would “quell fears” that some of the programs funded by the Fund for a Healthy Maine are not as efficient or effective as they should be.

The committee rejected a proposal submitted by some public health groups that an independent, nonlegislative review panel be established to oversee the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

The recommendations are scheduled to be presented to the Appropriations Committee today.

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/09/24/health/lawmakers-act-to-protect-healthy-maine-fund/ printed on August 23, 2014