Contagion In Rick Perrys Texas

Isaiah J. Poole

I’ve just purchased tickets to see the new movie “Contagion,” about a mysterious virus that spreads with deadly havoc around the globe. But after reading this article by the Los Angeles Times, I’m realizing that the real health horror story is not coming from Hollywood but from Texas.

That is where we’re getting a real-world example of what conservative health care looks like, and what the entire country is likely to experience if conservatives succeed in dismantling health care reform.

The L.A. Times reports on what has happened to the state’s health care system under Gov. Rick Perry:

… [I]n the 11 years the Republican presidential hopeful has been in office, working Texans increasingly have been priced out of private healthcare while the state’s safety net has withered, leaving millions of state residents without medical care.

“Texas just hasn’t proven it can run a health system,” said Dr. C. Bruce Malone III, an orthopedic surgeon and president of the historically conservative Texas Medical Assn.

More than a quarter of Texans lack health insurance, the highest rate in the nation, placing a crushing burden on hospitals and doctors who treat patients unable to pay.

This isn’t really news for working people in Texas, or for health care experts who have been watching Perry’s you’re-on-your-own health care policies. A 2009 Commonwealth Fund study ranked Texas at or near the bottom overall in such key health care measures as access to care, equity, prevention and avoiding unnecessary hospital costs.

The Times’ story chronicles some of the executive and legislative decisions that have made Texas a national leader in the downward spiral into third-class health care:

[T]he governor and state Legislature slashed funding to train physicians to less than half of what it was a decade ago. Another initiative highlighted by Perry’s office to aid community health centers was also cut. That came atop $800 million in cuts to hospitals and other medical providers that serve poor children, pregnant women and others who rely on Medicaid. Even before that move, Texas had one of the slimmest Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs in the country, spending less per enrollee than 41 other states and the District of Columbia, according the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

Texas ranks a bit better in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which is based on a daily poll of 1,000 adults around the country, but here as well, Texas ranks dead last in the percentage of state residents who are insured.

A major reason is that most of the jobs produced in Texas are low-wage jobs that do not offer medical benefits. And when employers do offer health benefits, employers are expected to pay more for them in Texas than in other states. The New York Times noted this in an editorial Sunday. “The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that average premiums for a family policy in Texas and Massachusetts were roughly the same in 2010 (more than $14,500), but the average worker in Texas had to pay 31 percent of that and the average worker in Massachusetts only 24 percent.”

To the extent to which Perry acknowledges a problem at all, he blames the federal government for not acting on a request for a waiver to structure the state’s Medicaid program. Not so, ruled PolitiFact in December in a “pants on fire” rebuttal of Perry’s claims. In fact, when the Department of Health and Human Services said their were problems with the state’s original waiver request, the Perry administration did not submit a revised request responding to the concerns.

Last month, the Houston Chronicle also did a critical takedown of Perry’s record on health care. “The state’s population growth of 4 million new residents over the last decade, coupled with budget cuts to medical education and Medicaid providers, has put Texas health care access on a dangerous trajectory,” the story concluded.

In “Contagion,” one of the movie’s stars falls ill from a mysterious virus that infects her while on a business trip in Hong Kong. But the story could easily start in one of Texas’ many economically struggling communities, in which a person who has no health care and a minimum-wage job that offers no paid sick leave sees no option but to come to work ill, not knowing that what starts as one person’s mild illness could spread to become a health care catastrophe.

If that ever happens, will the nation look fondly at Rick Perry’s gutting of state health care aid, his scorn for federal health care reform, and his nonchalance over the numbers of uninsured people in the state—or will policies like these be seen as a too-dangerous Achilles’ heel?

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