Court orders Pennsylvania to spend tobacco money on health care

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HARRISBURG -- Commonwealth Court judge has ruled the Corbett administration has to spend tobacco settlement proceeds on health care programs for the working poor instead of moving the money into the state's general budget.

Commonwealth Court 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. It went dark in early 2011, leaving 41,000 low-income recipients without health care and spurring a class-action lawsuit.

At the time the Corbett administration said the plan had to be shuttered because it was underfunded.

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 the low-income health program. Judge Pellegrini ruled that law was unconstitutionally superseded when the Legislature moved money out of it through two bills in 2010 and 2011.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, but no Corbett officials could immediately be reached for comment.

Those in favor of expanding low-income health care tied the decision to their calls on Mr. Corbett to expand the state's Medicaid offerings under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Mr. Corbett has thus far held off, waiting for a meeting with the Department of Health and Human Services on Medicaid's long-term costs.

"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."

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