Menu Bill Probably Will Pass

Don’t expect to see higher state taxes on tobacco products in West Virginia. Do expect to see changes in restaurant menus – in 2010, if not this year. That’s the prediction of the Northern Panhandle legislators I talked with this week.

Health care reform may well be the big sleeper issue of this year’s legislative session. As we already have reported, Gov. Joe Manchin and key lawmakers seem to agree on a framework that could provide health insurance for West Virginians who work at low-pay, no-benefits jobs. Personal responsibility, probably enforced in a manner similar to the existing Mountain Health Choices program for Medicaid clients, would be at the heart of such a program.

During a breakfast involving legislators and newspaper people from throughout the state this week, two lawmakers who are leading the charge on health care reform explained some of what they have in mind. They are state Sen. Roman Preszioso, D-Marion, and Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne. Both are members of a special legislative panel referred to as Select Committee D-Health.

“One of our concepts is the medical home,” Prezioso said. He and Perdue explained that the “medical home” – think of it in terms of your family doctor or clinic – would help to encourage health insurance clients to take responsibility for their own well-being, through simple steps such as getting regular check-ups. The “medical home” also is a component of Mountain Health Choices.

If health care reform is to proceed in West Virginia, it needs to be coordinated much better than is occurring now in state government, Perdue and Prezioso agree. They want to establish a new “Cabinet-level” position under the governor – a state secretary for health care. During their study of the issue, both men noted, they have encountered several situations in which officials in various agencies did not seem to be aware of health care initiatives elsewhere in state government.

Prezioso and Perdue stressed two “immediate initiatives” to improve the health of many West Virginians. They relate to the distressing number of state residents who are obese and to the amount of tobacco used in our state.

Higher taxes on tobacco products could reduce their consumption, the legislators believe. At the same time, higher taxes would generate money for health care initiatives such as the proposed new insurance program. Bills in both houses of the Legislature would approximately double the wholesale tax on cigarettes, taking it to 14 percent. At the same time, the current retail tax of 55 cents a pack would be raised to $1.20.

Area lawmakers I asked about the idea said it probably will go up in smoke this legislative session. Manchin has expressed little enthusiasm about any kind of tax increase during the recession, and many legislators agree with that, I was told.

A second initiative near and dear to the hearts of Perdue and Prezioso may make it into law this year, however. It would require restaurant menus, including those displayed on large signs at many fast-food establishments, to list the calorie content of foods being served. Prezioso and Perdue believe that would help some state residents make healthier food choices.

Restaurant owners are balking at the idea – not necessarily for the obvious reason. Of course it would cost them money. Prezioso said one restaurant owner has claimed that it would cost $800,000 to change the behind-the-counter signs at his establishments.

Cost is a concern, of course, but several legislators told me that many restaurant owners don’t have a problem with what is being referred to as the “calorie bill.” They don’t mind spending the money to inform their customers – but they object to the possibility that they may have to spend it twice. The restaurant owners worry about having to bear the cost of complying with a state menu labeling rule, then perhaps having to do it all over again if Congress approves a different federal regulation.

For that reason, it is possible the Legislature will hold off on a “calorie bill” this year – but will approve one no later than 2010.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at