Shameful Monday for public health.

By: - June 14, 2005 4:49 am

Monday night was a dreadful evening for public health in North Carolina on two fronts, the fight to stop teenagers from smoking so they won’t die early as addicted adult smokers, and the struggle to help people living with HIV/AIDS stay alive, stay at work, and stay with their families.

One battle was fought in the House Democratic Caucus and the House Finance Committee, the other decided with the stroke of a powerful legislators’ pen in one of those budget backrooms where so many decisions are made.

The biggest unanswered question about the House budget after last week was if the cigarette tax increase in it would be 25 cents or 35 cents. By the time the Democrats met privately Monday night, the battle had changed and House leaders were scrambling to get enough votes to pass the 25 cent increase.
The House Finance Committee met at 9:00 Monday night to consider a revenue package that included the tax, but adjourned without taking a vote when it was clear it would not pass. All the Republicans planned to vote against it and reportedly as many as five Democrats did too, led by Rep. Bill Faison.

The committee is set to meet tomorrow to try again, but it is likely that the budget process will be delayed while the tax wrangling continues.  Meanwhile, 25,000 kids will start smoking next year in North Carolina and research shows that significantly raising the tax will make many of them stop smoking or not start at all.

Twenty-five cents won’t do it. Not raising the tax obviously won’t do it and won’t raise the $175 million that the quarter increase will bring in. That money at least would help the House avoid making deep cuts to education and human service programs.

Late last week, the House budget leaders quietly made the decision to take out the $1 million that had been earmarked for the AIDS Drug Assistance Plan.  Reportedly, it was Rep. Ed Nye’s decision to take out the money that was already a pathetic attempt to address the HIV/AIDS crisis in North Carolina.
The money would have done nothing about the scandalously restrictive eligibility standard that denies lifesaving drugs that costs $13,000 a year to people who earn more than $11,600 a year.

The money would not have even paid to keep all the people on the plan who qualify at the current eligibility standard. Now even that money is gone. That means more people denied the drugs they need to stay alive.

There is still time to change both of these disastrous decisions. If they stand, the public health message of the House budget will be let kids keep smoking,  let poor people with HIV/AIDS keep suffering, and let people who need human services keep waiting.  

It would be a shameful and deadly mistake.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066