Ryberg: surgery program is example of waste

Many South Carolinians and a growing number of Americans have come to expect the worst from politicians because they too often receive it. Every time taxpayers think things cannot get any more bizarre, then a politician somewhere raises the bar.

The latest example appears in the decision by your state government to spend $2.4 million for lap band surgery for state employees. South Carolina unfortunately already bears the scars of wasteful spending, especially during the past brief period of prosperity.

South Carolina government failed to set aside adequate funds for the inevitable downturn, and it likewise failed to prioritize spending on core functions of government such as education and law enforcement and transportation infrastructure.

Now, in the second year of the recession, South Carolina government has had to make tremendous cuts to the services provided by vital agencies. These include public schools and prisons and the highway patrol and Medicaid.

The surgery program, meanwhile, received no debate in the health care committees of either the House or the Senate. The House Ways and Means Committee inserted it as a proviso into the budget, and it received no debate on the House floor.

The South Carolina Employee Insurance Program covered and studied weight reduction surgery from 2001-2004 and health care costs following the surgery in fact rose. The cost of health care four years following the surgery was three times greater than prior to surgery.

I learned this when I actually asked state health plan officials during a Senate subcommittee meeting on the budget proviso. They testified to the costs incurred with the last trial and did not support this program.

I successfully removed this proviso from the Senate version of the budget. I at that point, based on the facts and the Senate vote, considered it to be properly vetted and resolved.

But when the final version of the budget appeared there was the surgery proviso. House leadership insisted that it be tucked back into the 550-plus page budget.

This is why people distrust politicians. This is the reason they think that politicians are crazy. And politicians prove taxpayers right when they spend their money like this.

Obesity cost S.C. taxpayers over $71 million in state health care charges in 2007. That cost was almost identical then to smoking-related charges. The cost has risen.

The state Budget and Control Board approved in August 2008 a $25 per month surcharge on smokers covered by the state health plan. It took effect this past January. Legislators rightly defend it on the grounds that taxpayers should not shoulder the cost of poor individual decisions.

We have not heard one complaint. Citizens and legislators agree that taxpayers should not have to pay for the choice of state employees to smoke.

I proposed in 2009 a $25 per month obesity surcharge for state employees on the same grounds that taxpayers should not have to pay the costs of unhealthy life styles. This did not pass, but be assured that we will revisit this in January.

People all over South Carolina successfully maintain healthy lifestyles. I drive by parks, tracks and neighborhoods, and at every hour of the day there are people walking, jogging, cycling, rollerblading, etc. These are the lifestyles we should be rewarding. We all want state employees, and all South Carolinians, to be healthier. I want a reduced cost of state health insurance for both state employees and the taxpayers who fund over seventy percent of
employee insurance.

South Carolinians realize, however, that ultimately we are responsible for our own actions. We must not expect government, i.e. the taxpayers, to rectify a situation that results from unhealthy life style choices.

Spending $2.4 million for something that state employees could and should do for themselves simply reflects a disregard for other people’s money.

Experimental surgery is not a function of government. Righting the wrongs of poor individual decision-making is not a function of government. Taxpayers deserve better.

This $2.4 million would pay for 41 classroom teachers, or for one class of 50 new state troopers, or it would eliminate the mandated five-day furlough of 3,200 uniformed correctional officers.

Your government should have done the same. Your elected officials should listen to you. Call, write, and be heard.

Stop the madness.