For the past 30 years, Montana's Crime Victim Compensation program has provided financial assistance to help innocent crime victims with their medical expenses and lost wages. Anyone who has been hospitalized recently knows how quickly the charges add up.
Unfortunately, while medical costs have been going through the roof, the state's contribution to victim compensation has remained basically unchanged since 2000. As a result, the program runs out of money earlier and earlier each year, forcing victims and health care providers to wait until the start of the next fiscal year to be paid and compounding the chronic underfunding.
Some medical providers are understanding and, given the $25,000 per-victim maximum, accept reduced and delayed payments for victims' bills. But not all providers are as sympathetic. In some cases, victims are threatened with collection efforts, adding to the stress, hardship and sense of betrayal they suffer.
This year, a 50-year-old man leaving work at 10 p.m. was attacked and beaten by two young men. The victim sustained a deep cut on his forehead, broken teeth and two broken ribs. He was treated in a hospital emergency room at a cost of $2,208. The Crime Victim Compensation specialist contacted the hospital, advising the business office that compensation had been approved but, because of lack of funds, the program couldn't pay until the state's new funding year begins in July. The hospital advised that the victim's charges would be considered his responsibility and, if not paid immediately, would be turned over to a collection agency.
In another case, a full-time firefighter was shot twice in the chest. The victim incurred considerable medical expenses and lost wages as a result of the attack. Crime Victim Compensation reimbursed the victim $3,000 for medical expenses, but had to suspend an additional $18,000 until after July. The victim had to get a loan to pay off his remaining medical bills so they wouldn't be turned over to collection.
This simply isn't good enough. The innocent men, women and children hurt by assault, rape, domestic violence, child abuse, drunk driving and homicide deserve our compassion and support n not excuses.
For the past two legislative sessions, the Department of Justice has unsuccessfully asked the Montana Legislature to increase the program's funding by approximately $200,000 a year. This increase in state funds would also generate more federal funding for Montana crime victims. The federal government matches any dollars contributed by the state to the Crime Victim Compensation program at the rate of 60 percent. As a result, a $200,000 increase in state funding would be matched by approximately $120,000 more a year in federal funding.
Unfortunately, even with additional state funding, Crime Victim Compensation will still need a one-time supplemental appropriation to catch up. As of June 24, because it has had to "rob Peter to pay Paul" for so many years, the program has a backlog of $580,000 in unpaid claims.
Between now and the start of the next session, I urge Montanans to remember the victims in their communities and raise the issue of adequately funding the Crime Victim Compensation program with their representatives.
Mike McGrath is Montana's Attorney General. He writes from Helena.