Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Special ed costs
need further inquiry

The issue: The state auditor's
report to the Legislature reveals
questionable billings

THE state auditor's discovery of possible fraudulent billing undeniably justifies a continuation of a state legislative committee's investigation of costs related to special education. That the state had been slow to provide special education services and was under a federal court order to improve them do not nullify the need for fiscal responsibility.

Further, the attorney general should vigorously pursue legal action to overturn U.S. District Judge David Ezra's refusal to allow certain court-appointed officials to answer the committee's questions. The judge earlier this month denounced the legislators' probe, contending the inquiry approached obstruction of justice and likening it speciously to McCarthyism. The committee, Ezra argued, had turned up no evidence of financial mismanagement. If he wants evidence, Auditor Marion Higa last week provided some.

In a computer analysis of special education spending, Higa turned up what appears to be a pattern of problems and fraudulent billings. One astonishing example was the case of a therapist who charged the state nearly $60,000 for 1,765 hours in a month of services. On one day alone, the therapist billed for 127 hours of work. Even the most creative accounting practices could not tally more than five days of work in a 24-hour period.

Higa estimated that the Felix consent decree -- the result of a lawsuit alleging the state was in violation of a federal law requiring appropriate mental health and education for children with disabilities -- cost the state $400 million last year. With that amount of money being spent and the state under pressure to comply with the decree, she said some service providers saw a gold mine and took advantage of the situation.

Ezra, meanwhile, has quashed committee subpoenas of three people he has appointed to oversee Felix-related matters, contending that the calls for their testimony hampered efforts to comply with the decree. His argument may be valid in the cases of Ivor Groves, the court monitor, and Groves' assistant, both of whose duties are ongoing. However, the third subpoena was for Judy Schrag, who served on the now-defunct panel that provided technical assistance. How her having to testify would slow compliance is unclear.

Ezra's contention that the committee has no jurisdiction over a federal matter is correct, but as the overseer for compliance, it would be appropriate for the judge to find a way to assure the state's disabled children and their parents that the court is looking out for their fiscal interest as well.

Find a way to begin
fluoridating water

The issue: State legislators are
demanding that tobacco-fund money
not be used for fluoridation

THE vocal minority that can be blamed for Hawaii's high rate of tooth decay has coaxed state legislators to oppose the funding of a Lanai fluoridation project with tobacco-settlement money. Faced with the threat to cut off tobacco funds as a source, Bruce Anderson, the state's health director, should find other ways to finance the project.

After receiving the legislators' threat, Anderson said he will support the Lanai project with federal funds instead of the state's tobacco money. "Obviously, we think it's an appropriate initiative given the high rate of tooth decay on Lanai," he said. "It has the highest rate of tooth decay of any place in the state, and Hawaii has the highest rate of tooth decay in the country."

Public opinion polls have shown that nearly three-quarters of Americans favor water fluoridation, while less than one in five oppose it, demanding that their drinking water be "pure." Actually, fluoride occurs naturally in all water sources; fluoridation consists of increasing its presence to an optimum level for preventing tooth decay, from 0.7 to 1.2 parts per million -- equivalent to a tablespoon for every 4,000 gallons.

The use of fluoride in the past 40 years has been credited as the primary factor in saving some $40 billion in oral health care costs in the United States. Two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized community water fluoridation as one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.

Fluoridation of water was controversial decades ago, when ultraconservatives claimed that it was a communist plot to poison Americans. Nearly 145 million Americans now drink fluoridated water, including 10 million whose water contains fluoride naturally at the optimum level. Water systems are fluoridated in all of the country's 50 largest cities except Honolulu.

In a letter to Anderson, 46 of Hawaii's 76 legislators threatened to ban use of any of the $150 million settlement to the state by the tobacco industry from being used for water fluoridation. Anderson had announced in August that he planned to spend $100,000 of the tobacco money on equipment and other expenses in fluoridating Lanai's water system during the first year and $2,0000 in subsequent years.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

Richard Halloran, editorial page director, 529-4790;
John Flanagan, contributing editor 294-3533;

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