RICH AGENCY, POOR AGENCYDHS PLAYS HIDE AND SEEK WITH MARYVALE CANCER MONEY
Ten years ago, when state health officials first learned that children in Maryvale were dying of leukemia at twice the national rate, they delayed further health studies of the west-side community and quietly covered up the problem.
When news reports of Arizona Department of Health Services' four-year delay in studying the tragedy surfaced in 1987, officials at DHS pleaded poverty as the excuse for their lack of diligence.
Maryvale residents were outraged by the health department's mishandling of the tragedy, and the public outcry prompted Arizona politicians to successfully obtain funding for a series of studies to determine what may have caused the deaths.
But now that the funding is in place, the health department says it has too much money for the third, and most important, Maryvale health study. This "overfunded" study is two years behind schedule and activists say its scope is too narrow to find a cause.
The Arizona State Legislature made a "mistake" when it doled out an extra $300,000 for the Maryvale study, thereby upping the sum to $600,000, says Norman Petersen, chief of DHS' Office of Risk Assessment and Investigation.
There was absolutely no mistake in appropriating the money, says state budget analyst Cy Blanton. The $600,000 in question was appropriated in 1989 and 1990 by the legislature at the request of Maryvale legislators. (The legislators had consulted with scientific experts across the country before coming up with the sum.)
Nevertheless, the health department itself has often requested that half of the Maryvale money--$300,000 of the $600,000--be shifted to other projects, says Blanton.
"They wanted to use that money for other purposes. They said they didn't need it for Maryvale," says Blanton, an analyst specializing in health issues for the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which grinds out budgets for the legislature.
Blanton says he refused to go along with the health officials' request to shift the funds because the money had been specifically earmarked for Maryvale leukemia studies. (The champion of the Maryvale studies was former representative Bobby Raymond, who is currently on parole after serving prison time for his role in AzScam. He did not return repeated telephone calls.)
Mistake or not, the fact that an additional $300,000 is available but DHS has no plans to use it outrages Maryvale activist Melody Baker, who says DHS officials have always moaned about a lack of funds when she has asked them for a more detailed health study.
"This is ludicrous," she says.
So far none of the $600,000, which was given to DHS by the legislature in 1989 and 1990, has been spent, says Blanton.
But the money had been put to another use--balancing DHS ledgers.
"The money is there or not there, depending on how you look at it and what time of the year it is," says Petersen. "It appears and disappears in the books."
Blanton refuses to name the DHS officials who claimed they wanted to put some of the Maryvale money to other uses.
Ted Williams, former director of DHS, and Greg Jacquin, current assistant director of DHS, both tell New Times they never intended to use any of the $600,000 for anything but the Maryvale studies.
"I can't speak to what the JLBC may or may not have been saying," says Jacquin. He says he has had "no indication" that any of the Maryvale money would be used for other DHS projects. And he adds that DHS will complete a "sound, fully documented study" to see what caused the abnormally high rate of childhood leukemia.
Curiously, the scientist in charge of the Maryvale study didn't even know how much money was available until informed by New Times. Dr. George Meaney says he was told by his superiors that only $300,000 was budgeted. "Three hundred thousand dollars is what I have been planning on all along," he says. "If we have a cost overrun, it's nice to know we have additional money."
Meaney says he does not think it odd that he, the director of the study, was not informed of the money available to him. "I don't see that as being strange," he says. "I do science." In meetings with citizens, however, Meaney has often used budget constraints as excuses not to conduct more detailed studies.
The "case control" study being supervised by Meaney is the last in a series of three health studies launched in 1987, after New Times reported on a mysterious cluster of childhood leukemia deaths.
The first two studies confirmed that for at least 16 years, Maryvale children contracted and died of leukemia at higher-than-normal rates.
The third "case control" study will try to determine what caused the high rate of leukemia by asking questions of actual family members of leukemia victims, and by conducting environmental sampling.
The study should be completed in late 1993--about two years later than DHS had originally projected.
If the study will indeed only swallow up half of the money doled out by the legislature, then the remainder should revert back to the legislature, says Blanton.
But Blanton, who is retiring next week, warns that DHS might try to "rat hole" the money and spend it for other purposes when legislators' backs are turned.
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