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The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik on a Hugh Hunt.

Thursday, March 2, 2006  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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Last week I reported on air that after my grilling of Los Angeles Times Dan Morain for his fumbled story on the use of Prop 10 state monies to fund a $23 million mass media “preschool for all” television and radio campaign, the Times sent a reporter to pull the forms I have to file annually because of my position on the Orange County Prop 10 Commission, on which I have served since it was established in 1999. (Unlike Reiner, however, I have actually been reappointed. Unlike Reiner I am not the Chair of the OC Commission, and have declined the chairmanship on the theory that health care professionals or those involved in school administration should be the face of the commission.)

Today, Timesman Michael Hiltzik, a classic bitter lefty reporter/columnist who I interviewed at length in a long appearance on my show a few weeks back, called down to the Orange County Prop 10 Commission staff, and after some questions the staff though odd, got around to his point: Is the Commission funding avian flu preparedness because of Commissioner Hewitt’s interest in the subject?

Had he asked me, I would have answered “I hope so,” and as I have stated on the radio program many, many times, local governments must be the first line of defense if the flu should arrive here, and because among the most vulnerable groups to the deadly virus will be children 0-5, the prime constituency of the Prop 10 funding.

I have also stumped in San Bernadino County for the same sort of expenditure from Prop 10 funds, since the purpose is appropriate and the need compelling, these funds are generally not committed 100%, and because some new revenues arrived this year from higher than expected cigarette consumption and reimburseable expenses. I hope every Prop 10 County Commission in the state helps jump start the H5N1 preparedness effort.

The Orange County Commission voted to appropriate $2.4 million towards pandemic preparation, including an allocation of $900,000 for immediate use in collaboration with the County’s public health officer. The Commission took that action after a presentation by Dr. Mark Horton –then OC Public Health officer, now the state’s public health officer– in which he not only confirmed that young children will be especially vulnerable to the virus, but that the help would be greatly appreciated. I am not sure I made the motion to make the appropriation, but I sure hope I did. It passed unanimously.

One of the reasons I am so outraged at the absolute waste of the $23 million of state Prop 10 funds on “up with preschool ads” is because that money is desperately needed on so many other fronts, including avian flu preparedness, but also dental health, immunization, and clinical care.

Hiltzik is no fan of Prop 82, or of celebrity iniatives, but he clearly doesn’t know much about Prop 10 either, having written last summer about the

fiasco produced by Proposition 10, the 1998 initiative sponsored by film director Rob Reiner to fund preschool programs from a tobacco tax. Proposition 10 established an autonomous bureaucracy of unelected administrators to manage $3 billion in funds. Much of the money was squandered on travel and vanity projects while thousands of children were waiting for their preschool programs to appear.

“Much of the money was squandered on travel and vanity projects?” Whatever Hiltzik is talking about, this isn’t what the county commissions are doing. And except for the Mass Media Communications Account, it isn’t what the state commission has been doing either.

The private war that Michael Hiltzik wants to have with me, and which doesn’t interest me as I don’t fight down in class, may at least help bring some attention to the need for preparedness now, and to a source for the preparedness money: The state commission’s Mass Media Communications Fund.

And if Hiltzik really was interested in covering a story as opposed to redressing some perceived slight, he’d dig into whether the state is remotely close to being prepared for H5N1.

UPDATE: Hiltzik Hunts a Hugh Part (2)

Mr. Hiltzik e-mails:

Hugh:In the course of researching the range of programs funded by First5 commissions statewide, I came across the OC commission’s funding of an avian flu local response plan. The minutes show this was approved at the meeting of November 2 last year. I have a few questions about this program, if you’d care to respond.

1. What role, if any, did you play in bringing this issue to the commission’s attention and placing this item on the agenda?

2. Mike Ruane told me that the issue was discussed with the commission by Dr. Mark Horton, then the county’s chief health officer, prior to its taking action. You stated on your blog that you interviewed Dr. Horton on the subject of the avian flu at some point during the week of October 9. Was this before or after (or in the course of) his appearance before the commission? Did you play a role in bringing Dr. Horton before the commission?

3. What’s your view of how this program fulfills the goals and responsibilities of the Children & Families Commission? Do you know if any of the other county commissions have considered or funded a similar program directed at avian flu preparedness?

4. What leads the OC commission to believe that, in the event the avian flu reaches these shores and becomes a broader threat to human life, existing federal, state, and local programs will be unable to meet the challenge and therefore that a initiative by First5 is necessary?

Feel free to respond to me at 213-237-0713, or by return email, or let me know when it would be convenient for us to talk. I’m considering a column on First5 as early as Monday.

Regards,
MH

Michael: I am a strong supporter of the Orange County Commission’s avian flu peparedness plan, and urged the Commission to consider and adopt it, and had done so even before Dr. Horton appeared to brief the Commission, a presentation that I did not have a role in scheduling but certainly welcomed, including his remarks on the unique vulnerability of children in the event of the flu becoming transmissible from human to human, as well as on the relative likelihood of southern California being an entry point into the U.S. for the virus given our relatively high rate of visitors from and commerce with southeast Asia.

I am fairly sure Dr. Horton appeared on my show after his Commission briefing, but I can’t swear to that. He spent nearly an hour with me, just prior to his departure for a visit to Vietnam, designed in part to study the public health response to H5N1. As I recall, his presentation to the Commission was so riveting that I wanted the national audience to hear him. His deputy in the state effort, Dr. Backer, was my guest just this week for an extended discussion of the program.

I base my belief on the necessity of local preparation on the across-the-board statements to that effect by almost every medical expert and public health professional I have heard or whose writings I have read. (There is a dissenting view, best summarized by Michael Fumento in his Weekly Standard piece, “Fuss and Feathers.”) Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt is touring the 50 states to prod state and local governments into doing their part, not many of which have yet responded effectively. I have interviewed, among others, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Governors Pawlenty and Romney and others on the subject, and believe that every county commission would be well advised to adopt a measure similar to Orange County’s. I advocated for this approach in San Bernadino, but don’t know whether they have embraced it. I understand many local governments are now beginning the planning, and given the vulnerability of very young children to all such viruses, I hope the county Prop 10 Commissions are involved in the effort, especially those Commissions, like the Orange County Commission, which have been establsihing networks among schools and health care providers for many years now. Given the school nurses and public health nursing network we have been helping to build over the past few years, we are uniquely situated to transmit crucial information in a timely fashion should the public health need arise.

For your reference, many consider the Foreign Affairs article by Laurie Garrett in the July/August 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs to be a good starting point for people unfamiliar with the potential devastation of the pandemic.

Here’s the Orange County Commission’s press release from December on the program.

Section 5 of Prop 10 spells out the mission of the program:

There is hereby created a program in the state for the purposes of promoting, supporting, and improving the early development of children from the prenatal stage to five years of age. These purposes shall be accomplished through the establishment, institution, and coordination of appropriate standards, resources, and integrated and comprehensive programs emphasizing community awareness, education, nurturing, child care, social services, health care, and research.

Among the health-related programs funded by Prop 10 revenues that I have also strongly supported and vigorously defend are: school nursing subsidies to all Orange County districts, a county-wide dental health program for children from birth to age 5 including the establishment of a new dental clinic; the Bridges for Newborns program in most of the county’s birthing hospitals; the support for existing health clinics treating the 0 to 5 population and the establishment of a new clinic; the establishment of a cutting edge autism diagnosis, treatment and research center, an asthma and other chronic lung disease diagnosis, treatment, prevention and research center; a metabolic disorder treatment and research program; and a childhood obesity prevention and treatment program. The OC Prop 10 Commission is also deeply invested in funding shelters for homeless families with children 0-5, including an outreach to the motel children of the county.

Of course the healthy development of children will be significantly arrested by the mortality associated with H5N1.

I look forward to your column, including your “extensive” research on other county commissions’ programs, though of course I suspect the column is just an exercise in payback for embarrassing Dan Morain and you, as well as other Times’ reporters over the years, and my near constant criticism of the paper’s many ideological excesses.

But, hey, you could surprise me. If your work helps alert California to the fact that it is woefully unprepared –as was Turkey, and as France is finding itself– to deal if only with the panic that bird flu brings, then you will have done a public service.

I have one suggestion for your research. Despite the Commission’s appropriation, which is available in part for the purchase and storage in the County’s public health facilities, of Tamiflu, there appears to be difficulty in obtaining it, perhaps because of limited supplies, and perhaps because public health officials do not want to encourage false security, though Tamiflu seems the best treatment bet right now. My concern is that the moment H5N1 arrives on our shores, it will be too late to acquire the supplies that everyone needs, and that the demand will be instant and overwhelming. The best prevention of such a scenario seems to me to be the early acquisition of a decent sized supply at many locations around the country, but especially in entry/exit points.

In my interview this week, Dr. Backer also revealed, I think for the first time, that California has stopped about 30 inbound passengers for testing/observation of possible H5N1 infection, and that three fully function quarantine units exist at San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego airports.

Finally, the very best source of all news on H5N1 is the Wall Street Journal’s online Avian Flu News Tracker (subscription required.) I bet that won’t make it into the column.

In light of my responsiveness, I hope you can oblige one request: Please direct your newspaper column readers to this blog entry via the reproduction of this specific URL link in your column, and include a hyperlink if you publish the column online.

Hugh

UPDATE #2: The next e-mail from Michael, and my reply:

Hi Hugh:

These concern the White House Writers Group, which Mike Ruane told me has held a $250,000 annual contract since at least June 2003 with the OC First5 commission.

1. Could you elucidate your role in bringing the Group together with the commission? Mike told me that although the full commission approved the contract, you brought the firm to its attention–in his words, you “thought they had the expertise to help with national issues” and “thoght we should investigate [their suitability].” Can you expand on the role you thought they could play in the operations of the commission?

2. Can you describe their role as contractors for the OC Commisson?

3. Did you work with any of its principals in the Reagan White House?

4. Can you comment on whether, inasmuch as the firm’s leadership is almost exclusively comprised of former staff members of the Reagan and George HW Bush administrations, it is inappropriately partisan to be holding a consulting contract with a nonpartisan state agency?

As before, feel free to call me at 213-237-0713 or reach me by return email.

Best,
MH

Hi Michael:

So the avian flu scoop didn’t pan out, and now you are running the list of OC Commission consultants to look for partisanship? Let me assure you that we have not contributed time or money to the passage or defeat of any ballot iniative.

The Commission does hire consultants, in D.C., Sacramento, and O.C., and I make recommendations on potential hires whenever I know someone with great expertise in the area we are hiring for. I recommended the White House Writers Group in 2003 after four years of limited succcess in establishing the partnerships we need there in the national health and philanthropy communnities. I didn’t know Clark Judge when I was in Washington, though he was in the Reagan White House. One of his colleagues, Peter Robinson, was my friend then and now, but doesn’t work on the OC Commission’s business. I don’t know and have never inquired about the political affiliation of his colleagues or staff.

I recommended Judge because of his expertise on national public policy development and communications, the same basis on which I recommended Phil Isenberg to represent the Commission in Sacramento. Phil as you may know is a life long Democrat and long time Democratic office holder, still active in advising Democrats on a number of issues. Like Judge, though, I believed Isenberg brought the Commission the expertise it needed in specialized fields –D.C. and Sacramento representation respectively.

Why do we need such representation?

The Commission has revenues of approximately $40 million per year, and though we have always done our best to conservatively model our revenues and plan accordingly, unless the Commission develops long term partnerships with state and national government agencies and foundations, we will not be able to sustain the Orange County platforms we have built in health care and education services for our target population. This is because of the projected decline in tobacco tax revenues that will accompany projected decreases in consumption patterns. We have established very prudent ten year reserves, but conservative planning will not prevent a fiscal crisis in the out years if we do not develop partnerships with state and national organizations, especially foundations.

The Judge/Isenberg tasks are to help us prepare for that long haul in both cities. (The Commission-funded autism center, for example, will not succeed if its funding is contingent or short term. The same can be said for many of our initiatives, which is why we stress the financial planning which I believe Ms. Altmeyer has explained to you today, and why we engaged both Mr. Judge and Mr. Isenberg.)

I recommended the Commission interview Judge after four years of zero success on the national level. I think I recommended Isenberg two years earlier than that. The Commission interviewed both men and debated the contracts in public and voted to hire them unanimously. Both have performed extremely well, are subject to annual contract reviews and renewals, and I believe my colleagues share my view that both have performed very, very well.

By way of example from D.C., recently Orange County was selected as a Vanguard Site for the National Children’s Study, which is a very important milestone for the Commission, a selection to which Mr. Judge contributed a great deal. We have also made great progress with national foundations such as the Annie Casey Foundation.

Mr. Isenberg has been pivotal in explaining and defending the county commissions’ role in Sacramento, and in keeping the Legislature mindful of the difference between the state commission and the local initiatives.

Again, neither of these are “partisan” hires, though both men have experience in partisan positions. They are expertise hires.

I hope in your hunt to write a “all commissions alike” column, you don’t obscure the differences between the expenditures from the Mass Media Communications Account that I view as naked political boosterism of Prop 82 with the very successful platforms the OC Prop 10 Commission has constructed with the help of a great staff and very qualified and successful consultants in Sacramento and D.C.

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