(Harrisburg) -- An arbitration panel's ruling could have devastating effects on health programs supported by Pennsylvania's share of the Tobacco Settlement Fund.
Tom Rooney of Fairfield, Adams County, smoked two packs a day for 40 years. Then, about two years ago, he walked into a Freedom From Smoking program and hasn't had a puff since.
"I feel 100 times better," he says. "Within a week I had stopped coughing."
Rooney tried many times to quit on his own, but each attempt was unsuccessful. Now many tobacco treatment and cessation programs, like the one Rooney credits with keeping him smoke-free, are being eliminated in the wake of a ruling over disputed funds in the tobacco master settlement agreement.
The state had to act quickly to freeze the money, this fall, after the arbitration panel overseeing the MSA determined some of the largest tobacco companies in the nation could withhold $180 million from Pennsylvania.
The panel said the commonwealth, in 2003, did not "diligently enforce" certain provisions relating to the non-participating tobacco manufacturers -- resulting in lost market share for the 65 companies that are a part of the 15-year-old settlement.
Jen Hobbs Folkenroth, a certified tobacco treatment specialist with the American Lung Association in Pennsylvania, says the big tobacco companies found a loophole.
"That little bit of money that we get to help these folks, that's what the MSA money was meant to be used for," she explains.
"It wasn't meant to be taken away and then have people struggling to break free from an addiction that they don't want to be a part of anymore."
Folkenroth, who's based in Camp Hill, is one of only five MSA-funded cessation providers left in Pennsylvania's south central district. Before this fall's arbitration panel ruling there were 21 providers across the 13 county region. She fears the decision will mean increased smoking rates, higher health care costs and -- unfortunately -- more smoking-related deaths.
As chair of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, state Senator Pat Vance keeps a close eye on the Tobacco Settlement Fund. But, since the ruling, the Cumberland County Republican does not like what she sees.
"It's very disheartening not just because of the year 2003, but I think all of us are looking over our shoulder thinking, "is this going to be applied to 4, 5, 6, etcetera?" It's the unknown, I think. In a year where the budget is pretty dire, to have to put away $180 million is kind of frightening."
Sen. Pat Vance
More than $7 million the state intended to spend on tobacco cessation and prevention programs this year has been frozen. The same can be said for more than $40 million earmarked for health research, and $25 million that was to be used to reimburse Pennsylvania hospitals for uncompensated care.
Vance, like state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, questions how the arbitration panel could penalize Pennsylvania for factors it clearly allowed in other states, like Ohio and Oregon. The case is now before the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on appeal, but Vance says she is not optimistic the arbitrators' decision will be overturned.
It's a decision ex-smokers like Tom Rooney call short-sighted. "I worked as a paramedic," he says. "Ninety percent of my time was cleaning up after people who were suffering as a result of bad decisions, lifestyle decisions, much of it smoking." "I'd walk away from patient deaths and the first thing I'd do is go out and smoke a cigarette -- that's how powerful this stuff is."
And it would appear Pennsylvania now has less power with which to fight back.
A ruling on the commonwealth's appeal is not expected until at least March.
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