EDITORIALS

Health Fund Pays Dividends

Posted March 04, 2011, at 7:40 p.m.

A program that returns $7 for every $1 invested, while improving the health of individuals as well as businesses, should be championed. That’s why Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed defunding of Fund for a Healthy Maine, which would essentially eliminate the more than a dozen programs it supports, is so shortsighted.

In his proposed budget for the next two years, the governor would use the money allocated to the health fund to help plug the hole in the state’s general fund budget. Or perhaps he’s using the money to help pay for tax cuts, which will mostly benefit the state’s highest earners.

What makes this even more insidious is that Fund for a Healthy Maine isn’t sustained with taxpayer funds, but rather it is the state’s repository of federal tobacco settlement fund money, money that is, by the terms of the settlement, supposed to be devoted to public health services.

The Fund for a Healthy Maine was set up in 1999 to manage Maine’s share of the $206 billion due to states from tobacco companies as part of a settlement agreement. Maine is slated to receive nearly $60 million in settlement funds next year.

The fund has used the money to support public health work in eight areas, including smoking prevention and cessation, substance abuse and teen pregnancy prevention. Maine has long been praised by national groups for using most of the money for its intended purposes rather than simply putting it in the general fund.

It has gotten significant returns for these investments. A 2008 report by the Trust for America’s Health found that public health investments saved $5.60 for every $1 invested. Returns in Maine have been as high as $29 per $1 invested, but averaged $7.50, according to the report. A group called the Friends for the Fund for a Healthy Maine includes the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business group.

But, the returns go far beyond dollars. Smoking among Maine high school students dropped 64 percent between 1997 and 2007. Studies have found that people who begin smoking as teens are much more likely to continue the habit, shortening their lives and costing millions in treatment for health problems.

Caring for abused and neglected children through state-funded foster care can cost thousands of dollars a month per child. The $4.6 million the fund allocates to home visits to help at-risk parents improve their child-rearing skills saves many times that by keeping children in their homes.

The fund also supports the state’s system of drug courts. The courts have kept people with drug addiction out of the criminal justice system and on the path to ending their abuse. A high percentage of those enrolled in drug court programs have retained their jobs, which is a benefit to their employers and their families.

Ending such successful programs — especially when the funding for them comes from a dedicated national settlement fund — is foolhardy from a financial and humanitarian perspective.

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