Point Austin: Think of the Children!

Health care no match for hot air

Point Austin
The 80th Texas Legislature is turning out to be the Session of the Child.

First there was Gov. Perry's abrupt announcement of an executive order mandating human papillomavirus vaccination for all sixth-grade girls, evoking an instant backlash at the Lege. Then came Jessica's Law, the child-molester gargoyle carried by Rep. Debbie Riddle and Sen. Bob Deuell – neither exactly the brightest bulb on the Capitol Christmas tree – that would allow the death penalty for certain quite rare but headline-grabbing sexual offenses. In short order, sucking all the air out of the dome, was the revelation that the 5,000 or so young inmates of the Texas Youth Commission are at considerable risk of physical or sexual assault, with virtually no legal recourse. Finally, wending its way much more quietly and uncertainly through the legislative sausage-grinder is a potential expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program to cover more uninsured Texas children.

Let's take a guess. Which of these matters are likely to have the most effect on the largest number of Texas children? Accordingly, which is least likely to be considered most urgent by a majority of Texas lawmakers?

If you guessed CHIP on both questions, it's not your first rodeo. Thousands of children potentially eligible for subsidized health insurance under the CHIP and Medicaid programs have been rationed out of the programs by legislative regulation, which accomplishes two things: 1) lowers state health budget costs, so local taxpayers can instead pick up the higher costs of emergency care; 2) allows lawmakers to say they didn't "cut" children's health insurance; they just regulated access. Sounds so much more polite that way. The current prognosis is that the somewhat liberalized CHIP regulations, which passed out of a House committee last week, will hit harder sledding on the floor and in the Senate – where Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Finance chair Sen. Steve Ogden have already indicated their disapproval.

Sen. O'Reilly

On the HPV front, it's hard to guess what the governor had in mind when he announced his executive order mandating vaccinations, without so much as a preparatory commission study or interim committee. Plenty of observers have pointed to campaign contributions from Merck (maker of the vaccine) as the efficient motive, but if I were a Merck lobbyist, I'd be demanding my money back. How did Perry expect to ram this past the notoriously reactionary Texas Legislature with no preparation, no lead-up, no politicking, no backroom arm-twisting? It's as though he knew the proposal was doomed from the outset so he could grab a few headlines about his commitment to the health of Texas youth without any worries about actually finding the money. (Oh, wait, we can privatize the lottery; it wouldn't be prudent to pay for health care out of general revenues.)

Jessica's Law – more accurately, Bill O'Reilly's Law, since the Fox chief blowhard has long been leading the campaign for its nationwide enactment – has no such problems, since the child-molester lobby is a little thin on numbers, and it's the sort of legislation that allows primo political grandstanding with little worry about actual consequences (which could be more harmful to victims than not) or even cost. A large majority of molestation cases are within families; is a victim going to be more eager to testify against Uncle Louie if he could get the needle? Even prosecutors, those knee-jerk liberals, worry that it will mean fewer rational plea bargains, because faced with 25 years-to-life or death, more offenders will roll the dice and decide to face their accusers in court – i.e., those same children Riddle and Deuell claim they want to protect. What do you expect from legislation by a talk-show demagogue?

Nevertheless, we're still going to be unprotected from the thousands ... hundreds ... OK, dozens of extreme sexual predators who mostly populate our TV cop melodramas – and who carefully consult the relevant penal codes before committing their heinous crimes. The FBI reports the national violent crime rate has declined 26% since 1996, but you'd never know that from the grim hysteria pouring from our televisions and our politicians.

CHIPping Away

On the other hand, nothing like a little sex to breathe life into a dormant news story. Stories of abuse at the Texas Youth Commission have circulated for years, although the charges mostly came from victims' families, and they mostly concerned "physical" abuse of inmates – generally treated with a shrug from officials and their constituents. Add sexual abuse to the mix, pull the story out of the shadows – thanks to The Dallas Morning News and The Texas Observer – and suddenly a longstanding crisis becomes visible. Maybe this will mean that something is finally done to help desperate youngsters who are otherwise on the mainline to state prison, where the whole cycle can repeat itself, with even less accountability for the officials responsible. Which returns us by degrees to CHIP, which at its high point (2003) insured more than 500,000 children – primarily with federal funds – now down to 320,000 thanks to Lege "regulation." Rather than address that growing gap, the state leadership is more concerned that sometime this spring, a federal court will finally enforce a consent decree the state signed in 1996 to expand federal Medicaid to the state's poorest children. In shameless fashion, the state has been fighting its own word for 11 years, and it's likely that Judge William Wayne Justice will finally require the government to do what's right. In case you've lost track, about 5 million Texans – the vast majority in families with working parents – have no health insurance. About 1.4 million of those are children.

Those are the numbers to remember the next time you see one of our state leaders droning on about "protecting the children." When they're ready to address the real, substantial problems of Texas children, and to find the money to do so, we can begin to take them at their word that they really give a damn about the state's most vulnerable citizens. end story

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Texas Legislature, HPV, 80th Legislature, Children's Health Insurance Program, Jessica's Law, Texas Youth Commission

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