That sound you hear is coming from Washington, where politicians and lawyers are smacking their lips in anticipation of a piece of the proposed $516 billion tobacco settlement.
Research, education programs, child-care subsidies and road building are just a few of the many projects Congress could consider appropriate uses of funds in what has become the biggest government money grab since the Louisiana Purchase.
There was a time not far removed when the mood in Congress was for slashing government spending, not looking for new ways to spend. Now it appears the intoxication of power, the booming economy and re-election jitters have crushed the Republican Revolution. The tobacco deal offers even more fuel to feed the insatiable public sector.
That's why providers must unite if they are to receive a fair shake from any settlement. Hospital and physician lobbyists must constantly remind Congress and the media that the legal action taken by states against the tobacco industry was predicated on the cost of treating patients with smoking-related illnesses. It was a public health issue, pure and simple.
The original $368.5 billion agreement among tobacco companies and 40 state attorneys general last summer required federal approval. Once the case crossed the Potomac, the indignant outcry from politicians and public health advocates raised the stakes by another $148 billion and reduced legal immunity for Big Tobacco. When Congress returns to work later this month, look for some serious discussion on how best to spend the money.
But we have a better idea. The money grabbers should follow the lead of the Senate, which in a budget resolution for fiscal 1999 called for the tobacco money to be placed in reserve with payments exclusively earmarked for the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund. Let's leave it at that.