HARRISBURG -- A Commonwealth Court judge has ruled that the Corbett administration has to spend tobacco settlement proceeds on health care programs for the working poor instead of moving the money elsewhere into the state's budget.
Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini on Monday declared two bills defunding the state's adultBasic health insurance plan unconstitutional but stopped short of ordering the state to use $200 million in tobacco settlement proceeds to restart the program. AdultBasic went dark in early 2011, leaving an estimated 41,000 low-income recipients without health care and spurring a class-action lawsuit.
At the time, the Corbett administration said the program had to be shuttered because it was underfunded and bloated.
Tobacco companies agreed in 1998 to distribute $200 billion over 25 years among Pennsylvania and other states, and a law overseeing the state's portion sent 30 percent of it to adultBasic and a disabled-worker assistance program. Judge Pellegrini ruled that law was unconstitutionally superseded when the Legislature reapportioned money from the tobacco pool through two bills in 2010 and 2011.
The judge ruled "that for the fiscal year 2013-2014, the Commonwealth [will] have to allocate the 30 percent of tobacco settlement funds, if any, to a health investment insurance plan (adultBasic or another similar plan) as well as to [Medical Assistance to Workers With Disabilities], unless there are contrary statutory enactments appropriating the funds otherwise."
The ruling seemed to open the door for the Legislature and the Corbett administration to go back and amend the act overseeing the tobacco monies. Currently the full 30 percent of the tobacco funding goes to the workers with disabilities program.
"We are reviewing the legal and budgetary issues related to the court's ruling," said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen of the governor's office of general counsel.
AdultBasic launched in 2002 to cover major health bills for those who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but were not old enough to apply for Medicare. The Corbett administration argued Gov. Ed Rendell and other Democrats allowed too many into the program and relied too heavily on funding from insurers Blue Cross/Blue Shield to cover it.
Democrats in favor of expanding low-income health care tied the court decision to their calls on the governor to expand the state's Medicaid offerings under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Mr. Corbett has thus far held off, waiting instead for a meeting with the federal Department of Health and Human Services on Medicaid's long-term costs to the state.
"Uninsured individuals, and especially those with a chronic illness, can't afford to wait until 2014, when the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. They need assistance now," said state Sen. Mike Stack, D-Philadelphia. "I urge the governor and the commonwealth to adhere to the court's decision and start the process of reinstating adultBasic."
Another Democrat and critic of Mr. Corbett, Treasurer Rob McCord, called the ruling "an important victory for Pennsylvania's working poor as well as a reminder that this administration has repeatedly used poor judgment when it comes to protecting the health of its citizens."
The suit was filed in March 2011 by the Pittsburgh firm Caroselli Beachler McTiernan and Conboy and the three initial plaintiffs are from Western Pennsylvania: Sheryl Sears of McKeesport, Ronald J. Guiney of Butler and Florence Spanos of Dormont.
"This is a great win for low-income Pennsylvanians," the firm's David S. Senoff said. "It confirms what we've been saying all along: killing the adultBasic care program was not only mean spirited, it was against the law."
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.