BELTON — The Bell County Commissioners Court approved receipt of about $200,000 in annual tobacco settlement proceeds at its meeting Monday.
The funds are Bell County’s dividend from a 1996 lawsuit filed by the state that accused the tobacco industry of violating conspiracy, racketeering, consumer protection and other provisions of state and federal law.
The industry agreed to pay the state $15 billion over 25 years and to pay about $2.3 billion through 2003 to Texas counties and hospital districts based on their provision of indigent health care, according to information from the Department of State Health Services, which oversees the distribution of the funds.
Distribution of funds began in 1998
Since 1998, the year funds from the lawsuit began to be distributed to counties and hospital districts throughout Texas, Bell County has received about $6.5 million, according to figures from the Bell County Auditor’s office.
“It’s a reimbursement program for funds spent in the 2013 calendar year,” Bell County Auditor Donna Eaken said. The funds are used to cover a portion of Bell County’s indigent health care expenses.
The amount of money the state provides to Bell County for indigent care expenses pales in comparison to the amount spent by the county, which is about $9.9 million per year.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” said Rita Kelley, director of Bell County Indigent Health Services. “It’s like spitting in the ocean.”
The reimbursement of only 2 percent of indigent health care expenses is standard throughout Texas, Kelley said.
“Every county only gets about 2 or 3 cents on the dollar,” she said. “The rest of the cost is totally on the taxpayer dime.”
Almost 40 percent, $3.8 million, of the funds spent on indigent health care is spent caring for inmates at the Bell County Jail, according to figures from the county auditor’s office. Of the money spent on inmate care, $3.2 million goes to medical exams.
“We’re statutorily required to perform them,” Kelley said. “We have to check for all of the diseases that someone can catch in jail like tuberculosis, AIDS or Hepatitis C.”
She added that about 30 percent of the inmate population has behavioral and mental health issues, which require additional screening.
Although, the county does work with, and supplies some funds to, other indigent care providers, such as the Jesus Acts in Inmates’ Lives Ministry and Aware Central Texas, the majority of the funds spent on indigent care is not given to other groups.
In 2013 alone, Bell County spent more than $750,000 on medical transportation for indigent residents. While ambulance services and hospitals try to recoup the cost of transporting indigent patients, it doesn’t always happen.
“They’ll try to collect those funds but sometimes we end up paying for the ambulance rides,” Eaken said.