January 2004

A few months ago, the nation’s worst outbreak of hepatitis A killed three people and sickened 660 others in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. More than 9,000 frightened people flocked to hospitals for tests and inoculations. Now that Chi-Chi’s has reopened its doors, loyal customers are happily returning.

But as the “Hepatitis Claims?” billboard on Route 60 attests, the health and economic crisis set off by the disturbing epidemic of hepatitis is far from over. Local lawyers are saying the hepatitis A outbreak is the biggest source of public health litigation in a generation, ever since the steel industry began generating workers’ asbestos claims.

As a Monaca, Pennsylvania, journalist has reported in the story Surviving in western Pa., Chi-Chi’s has paid out $96,000 in claims since the bankruptcy court approved the company to reimburse victims up to $3,000 for medical costs and lost wages.

Chi-Chi’s essentially has a $500,000 “deductible” on a $51 million liability insurance policy, which it expects to dip into after it reaches the limit. Victims might have other avenues for restitution. At least one suit has been filed against producers and suppliers who were implicated as possible sources of the tainted green onions.

While these kinds of legal imbroglios involving major chains and public health crises often take years to resolve, William Marler, a Seattle attorney, expects a speedier outcome.

“Chi-Chi’s in bankruptcy is actually a good thing for the victims,” says Marler, who represents 120 victims, including the 56-year-old man who needed a liver transplant. “If they want to get out of bankruptcy, they have to get rid of these claims sooner rather than later.”

As the president of WSU’s Board of Regents, I’m seeing first hand the damage being done by the current college funding crisis. As school budgets are cut, qualified students are turned away.

As Jake Ellison of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported today in his article College crisis puts potential students at risk, colleges in this state already have nearly 16,000 more students than they receive state money for. In the last legislative session, $112 million was cut from the higher ed system, and community colleges took a $12 million hit.

University and college officials, business leaders, state lawmakers and leading citizens have all used the word to describe the perfect storm converging on the system.

“We are headed into a situation where we’re using the blunt instrument of GPAs and SATs to deny admissions at a time when more people are wanting in and more need more education,” said Bill Marler, president of Washington State University’s Board of Regents.

“I didn’t sign up to be a regent to create a college environment where only students with straight A’s and high SATs get to go to college,” he said. “It’s beyond me why we as a public are allowing this to occur.”