Tomblin sows disappointment with vetoes to health budget
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some lawmakers say they're disappointed that Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin slashed funding to fight substance abuse and to improve end-of-life health care.
Last week, Tomblin, who is acting as governor, used line-item veto power to cut funding for 34 items in the state's $11 billion budget, including several health initiatives.
Those were $500,000 for the state Department of Health and Human Resources to combat substance abuse; $500,000 to help the Partnership to Promote Community Well-Being, a state policy and planning board that coordinates efforts to prevent drug and alcohol abuse; and $250,000 for the Center for End-of-Life Care to develop an electronic system to help health providers follow patients' wishes in emergencies.
House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue said he is frustrated with how difficult it is for lawmakers to get money to fight drug abuse. During this year's legislative session, the Wayne County Democrat and some others unsuccessfully tried to raise the state's tobacco tax to raise funds for anti-drug programs.
Perdue noted that the Legislature approved a measure (SB550) to give the state's racetracks up to $10 million a year over the next decade so that they can upgrade their slot machines. The bill, which is awaiting Tomblin's signature, is meant to help the tracks compete with other states' casinos.
"We can find $10 million a year for 10 years to give casinos so that they can compete," Perdue said, "and we can't give a half a million dollars for one year to compete for the lives of our citizens . . . I'm astounded."
As part of a decades-old legal case about the state's mental-health services, the DHHR is preparing a plan to fight drug abuse. Officials must submit the plan to the court system by October.
In his veto message, Tomblin wrote that it makes more sense to wait until the agency finishes the plan before doling out $500,000.
DHHR spokesman John Law said Tomblin's decision was prudent.
"We realize substance abuse is a major problem, from the influx of heroin in the Northern Panhandle, to the abuse of prescription drugs in our Southern counties, to methamphetamine use in our areas with a larger population," Law said in a statement, adding that the DHHR spends $73 million a year on substance abuse. "While we don't deny the need for more funding for substance abuse, it would be a better use of limited state dollars to wait until completion of the state's strategic plan and its approval by the federal government and the court system."
Perdue says the court case has dragged on long enough.
"By October of this year, we will see acceleration of the dismal statistics," Perdue said, referring to the fact that West Virginia has the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses.
Earlier this month, Perdue wrote to Tomblin, asking for $10 million to fight substance abuse. He says he has gotten no response.
"There should be a far greater sense of urgency than I have seen," said Perdue, who often sparred with former Gov. Joe Manchin about health funding. "Every day that goes by, somebody dies. Every day, somebody gets robbed, somebody's child is addicted, somebody blows up a meth lab."
Tomblin left intact a $100,000 earmark for the Healing Place of Huntington, a long-term residential treatment center.
The Partnership for Community Well-Being is a board appointed by the governor and created in 2004 by executive order.
It planned to use the $500,000 for projects such as data collection and a statewide campaign to prevent prescription drug abuse, said Wayne Coombs of the Prevention Resource Center, whose staff works for the partnership.
It is running on federal funds and currently doesn't get any money from the state, although it has in the past.
Senate Health and Human Resources Chairman Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said lawmakers believed the health projects were good investments.
"When we were putting this together, we thought it was money well spent, to try to impact the substantial drug problem in West Virginia to try to implement the online registry at the Center for End-of-Life Care," said Stollings, who is a physician. "Overall, I'm a little disappointed."
The electronic registry would be a secure database to inform paramedics and emergency room doctors how a patient wants to be treated in emergencies, said Dr. Alvin Moss, director of the Center for End-of-Life Care.
For instance, the health provider would know whether someone does not want to be resuscitated or put on a breathing machine.
"That registry would really enable West Virginians' wishes to be known and respected at the time of an emergency," Moss said.
In the veto message, Tomblin wrote that he cut the funds because he is "acutely aware of the national economy and of the budget deficits currently facing many other states."
"I'm a taxpaying West Virginian, and I appreciate that Governor Tomblin is trying to be a good steward of the state budget," Moss said, but added that following people's end-of-life wishes saves the medical system money by preventing unwanted, expensive care.
Moss said he is hopeful the center will still get help to develop the registry, as Tomblin administration officials have indicated they might be able to find other funds for it, possibly in the state's surplus funds.
Reach Alison Knezevich at alis [dot] [dot] [dot] [at] wvgazette [dot] com or 304-348-1240.