Off the Desk:
Prescription for Confusion?
The Seton Health Care plan to manage Travis County's public health system, which proposes to close all but one of the county's existing clinics, is generating uncertainty and fear among county staff and public health advocates. The HMO would increase clinic patients' access to doctors and save the county money, but it fragments the consolidated service delivery that has been a point of pride for the county community centers currently housing the clinics. These "one-stop" centers can determine a client's eligibility for public assistance, provide medical care, and dispense other aid such as rent assistance and emergency groceries, all under one roof.
"It's going to take away the whole reason for building the health centers and community services offices together, to bring services closer to the people here," says the Rev. Elvin Tyrone, who chairs the board at the East Rural Community Center in Manor, which newly rebuilt its center only two years ago.
Beth Abreu, manager of the North Austin health district, says that if the Seton system is too inconvenient, patients may neglect preventive and routine medical care. "It will mean changes for our clients. How will they adjust? Our fears are that they won't," she says.
Under the Seton plan, Manor clinic patients would find the nearest Seton doctor at the Northeast Austin clinic on Ed Bluestein, about 10 miles away. Clients at the Jonestown clinic, northwest of the city, will transfer a similar distance to a private physician in Cedar Park. And bus service in those areas is minimal, especially in Jonestown, since Cedar Park voters recently decided to close their Capital Metro hub.
Another disruptive change could be the halt to discounted pharmaceuticals available through city clinics. If the county and city health systems split, county clinic patients who receive medical treatment for a sliding-scale fee will have no place to get prescriptions filled at a reduced price because the Seton plan doesn't cover medicine. Clients covered by Medicaid, Medicare, or the city's MAP program will be able to fill prescriptions at private pharmacies. The county does offer emergency pharmaceutical assistance, but only clients earning between 50% and 85% of the federal poverty level, about $8,250 - 14,000 annually, qualify, and the service is intended for crisis situations only.
Though the Commissioners Court has yet to decide on the Seton plan, some county clinic staff are already opting to take jobs in city clinics rather than wait to see if Seton hires them. Austin's clinics are being run temporarily by a private consultant hired to reduce city clinics' operating costs. The company reports saving the city about $20 per patient visit, but County Judge Bill Aleshire says public health care is just too expensive, and must be privatized to prevent public health from becoming an intolerable burden for taxpayers.-- K.F.
Fighting for Lacresha
Will Lacresha Murray be coming home for the holidays? The Third Court of Appeals could decide as early as this week whether to overturn the 14-year-old's conviction. Lacresha is serving a 25-year sentence for the death of Jayla Belton. Saturday at the Capitol, about 80 protestors rallied to call for Lacresha's release and to decry the motives of District Attorney Ronnie Earle, Judge John Dietz, and othersinvolved in the case, saying that race and politics condemned an innocent young girl to prison.
Earle "used one of our babies for his own political gain ... and we should not ever tolerate that!" East Austin activist Dorothy Turner told the crowd.
The protesters' numbers were bolstered considerably by a UT student contingent called the Free Lacresha Committee, comprised of many of the same activists who formed the Anti-Racist Organizing Committee (AROC)to challenge UT's compliance with the Hopwood court decision. "We recognize [Lacresha's conviction] as the same kind of institutional racism,"commented AROC member Jamie Munkatchy. The protesters' central mantra, "No Justice, No Peace. Free Lacresha!" reflected the deeper criticism of Texas' criminal justice system that Lacresha's conviction has stirred. Members of the International Socialist Organization carried placards reading, "Money for Schools, not Jails," a representative from Amnesty International spoke, and protestors railed against the "good ol' boy system," saying, "Ronnie Earle is the real criminal."
"I am not going to rest until Lacresha Murray is free," vowed Barbara Taft, who quit her job as a legal secretary to lead the crusade to overturn Murray's conviction. "Innocence is the strongest force on the planet. Ignorance may deride it, but there it is -- the truth." For Robin Harven, who spent 21 years working in the Texas criminal justice system, Lacresha's speedy conviction was final proof that Texas' $1 billion prison system serves stockholders, not justice. "I couldn't believe this could happen right here in Austin, but it happens every day," said Harven. Lacresha's grandparents, Shirley and R.L. Murray, said they were encouraged by reports from Lacresha's lawyers as the appeals court decision looms. Shirley wore one of the "Free Lacresha" T-shirts being sold to help the couple pay for their visits to see Lacresha in Giddings, 60 miles east of Austin, and at one point a Capitol security guard came over to hug the couple.
"We hope, with the help of the good Lord, we will get her out soon," was all R.L. could say. -- K.F.
Watching the Detectives
A local group has been hitting the streets, monitoring police behavior, and informing people of their rights when having to deal with police officers, in an effort to curb potential incidents of police harassment. The 15 or so college-aged members of Austin Cop Watch (ACW) are taking their cues from similar police watchdog organizations in Berkeley, Minneapolis, and New York City. Members say their goal is to provide witnesses to arrests and to follow up on incidents of reported police harassment and brutality. Austin Cop Watch formed in October, fueled by events such as the 1995 Cedar Avenue incident, where 84 police officers stormed a Valentine's Day party in East Austin. Other incidents of harassment, Austin Cop Watch members say, usually happen downtown on the weekend as large numbers of people exit the bars. A few in the group say that on several occasions they've seen officers using excessive force, from handcuffing without reason to actually kicking and punching ostensibly drunk pedestrians.
Focusing on police activity in East Austin and downtown, the group divides into teams and combs the streets armed with camcorders and notepads. They've also recently acquired a police scanner to help pinpoint where and when arrests are taking place. While on patrol, the group also hands out flyers and cards donated by the American Civil Liberties Union that give citizens a detailed description of their rights if they are ever arrested. So far, the group has received support from both citizens and the police.
"The reason we know that it's a problem in this city is because of the massive reaction we've gotten from people," says ACW's Adam Seehaver, referring to the number of personal stories the members hear while out on patrol. Seehaver added that when the group arrives on the scene of an arrest -- which have so far been downtown when officers are detaining drunk college students who've gotten out of hand -- arresting officers have been fairly patient with Cop Watch members. "They're great," Seehaver said. "Most of them are very tolerant, some are even appreciative, others are intimidated."-- B.M.
Aiding the Uninsured
More than a million Texas children are uninsured, but as state Rep. Glen Maxey explained Sunday at the First Universalist Church of Austin's public affairs forum, the state's youth stand to gain considerably from a recently passed five-year, $24 billion federal program billed as the largest investment in children's health care since the creation of Medicaid. Maxey, who serves on the Texas House's Public Health and Human Services committees, said the federal Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) will provide $3 in matching funds for every dollar the state earmarks for children's health care. That sum could be substantial, especially since Texas must spend $151 million from the tobacco company settlements on health care for children, said Maxey.
Initially, the Texas program will cover 15- to 18-year-olds whose families have incomes below the federal poverty level, now estimated at $16,450 for a family of four. Expansion to younger children is expected to require approval by the Legislature and Gov. George W. Bush.
While the infusion of money is good, Maxey cautioned that the key to the program's success lies in effectively implementing and managing it. Many eligible Texans remain uninformed about the new program -- and other health services for the poor and working poor -- and sometimes the bureaucracy proves too overwhelming for parents to wade through. But Maxey said he plans to concentrate on CHIP outreach -- alerting parents that government-sponsored health insurance assistance is available for their children. There will also be a legislative committee to assist agencies with the CHIP implementation, he said. -- E.G.