HARRISBURG - A legal dispute over how sales of roll-your-own cigarette tobacco are calculated could mean a $180 million hit for some of Pennsylvania's health care programs.

This little-known case involving Pennsylvania's annual payments from tobacco companies has progressed to a stage where Pennsylvania's annual payment from tobacco companies could drop by nearly 50 percent.

Pennsylvania currently receives $340 million annually under a multi-state agreement negotiated with tobacco companies in 1998. Tobacco companies make payments to the participating states in return for those states agreeing not to sue the companies for health care costs related to smoking.

The current breakdown for distributing this money statewide is $41 million for home and community-based services, $14 million for a tobacco prevention program, $40 million for basic health research, $3.2 million for cancer health research, $25.8 million to cover uncompensated hospital care, $94.7 million for medical assistance for workers with disabilities, $25.3 million for a senior drug prescription program, $95 million for long-term care and $3 million for life science greenhouses.

In the legal case, a panel of former federal judges issued an arbitration decision last month that Pennsylvania failed to appropriately consider sales of roll-your-own tobacco in the formula used to determine what tobacco companies would pay.

The state attorney general's office is seeking a reconsideration of that decision. Meanwhile, State Budget Secretary Charles Zogby is bracing for a potential drop in the state's tobacco payment next April if the arbitration decision is upheld.

He put a freeze on discretionary funding for settlement-supported programs involving health research, uncompensated care for hospitals, tobacco prevention programs and the greenhouses.

Funding will continue for settlement-related programs for home and community-based services, medical assistance for disabled workers, medical assistance for long-term care, Department of Aging programs and mandatory tobacco use prevention and enforcement programs.

"Our goal is to see that direct health care services are not impacted by this decision, ensuring thousands of Pennsylvanians continue to receive the state's assistance," said Zogby.

Defibrillators

A Pocono region lawmaker has won House approval for her bill aimed at having more automatic external defibrillators available for health emergencies in public schools.

The measure by Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-189, Middle Smithfield Twp., would require school boards to hold a public meeting about having AEDs available and then vote on whether to acquire them.

AEDs are used to give life-saving treatment for sudden cardiac arrest, but they are not required to be in public school buildings, Brown said.

"It is my hope that this bill will create proactivity when it comes to having AEDs available in case one of our students has a health emergency," she added.

A state law was enacted about a decade ago to give two AEDs to each school district. Since then, some school districts haven't updated their AEDs or made them available in all their schools.

That law resulted from the death of 15-year-old Greg Moyer, of East Stroudsburg, of sudden cardiac arrest during a high school basketball game in 2000.

(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: rswift@timesshamrock.com.)