Posted: Mar 5, 2013 5:27 PM
Updated: Mar 5, 2013 5:28 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) About 1,000 protesters marched and rode wheelchairs to the Texas Capitol on Tuesday to demand that lawmakers fully fund Medicaid and expand it to include an additional 1.5 million poor people.
Disabled and low-income residents wearing yellow caps carried banners up Congress Avenue and chanted, "My Medicaid matters!" They were joined by their family members and dozens of groups from across the state.
After listening to speakers talk about their shared cause, protesters and their supporters headed inside the Capitol to lobby lawmakers.
Separately, hundreds of doctors in white lab coats met privately with legislators, asking for better reimbursement rates for treating Medicaid patients. Currently, the state only covers about 60 percent of the cost of treating recipients of the joint federal-state health care program for the poor and disabled. Doctors and clinics are expected to absorb the losses.
Under the Affordable Care Act, states have the opportunity to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income adults, with the federal government paying 85 percent of the cost over the next 10 years. The federal rules also would increase reimbursement rates to the same as those for Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly.
At least 26 states have agreed to expand Medicaid, but Texas Republicans insist the program already is too expensive for the state to operate and lacks enough doctors.
Gov. Rick Perry said he wants a waiver from the Obama administration that would allow Texas to receive the funding, ignore federal regulations and develop its own program.
DeAnn Friedholm, a former Texas Medicaid director who's now a health care expert with Consumers Union, said enrolling more people into the health program will lower local taxes and health insurance premiums by cutting back on the number of uninsured relying on emergency rooms for care.
Friedholm also called for a boost in Medicaid reimbursements.
"The biggest problem with Texas Medicaid today is that the payments for doctors are so far behind what other medical programs and private insurers pay that doctors can't or won't take Medicaid patients," she told a crowd on the Capitol steps. "Guess who's in charge of setting those rates? The Texas Legislature."
By spending $15 billion more on Medicaid over the next 10 years, the federal government would contribute $100 billion in matching funds and provide health care coverage for an additional 1.5 million Texans, she said. Texas currently has the highest rate of uninsured in the country at 24 percent.
"Texas Ranks (hash)50. Thank you Rick Perry for fighting so hard to keep it that way," read one sign mounted on a protester's wheelchair.
Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said the governor's position has not changed, even after Republican governors in Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio agreed to Medicaid expansion.
SMALL BREWERS SEEK TO EXPAND MARKET IN TEXAS
From his pizza pub in San Antonio, Scott Metzger has built a modest business brewing offbeat ales with names like Broken Treaty, eXXXtra Pale and End of the World.
But his plans to expand have run up against outdated laws favoring brewers from other states, Metzger told lawmakers in a contentious hearing at the state Capitol on Tuesday.
"I can sell more beer in the state of Texas today," Metzger testified, "if I moved out of Texas."
Over the last few years, the growth of the craft beer business has split the loyalties of the state's powerful distribution firms. When the Texas Senate's Committee on Business and Commerce agreed to consider legislation that would expand the market for craft beers, lawmakers set off a scramble for favorable regulations.
Expanding the fight, the committee's chairman also filed his own beer bill. It includes a hodgepodge of requests from the secretive Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, traditionally the most powerful trade group in the business.
As the 8 a.m. hearing came to order, men in dark suits and expensive haircuts stood shoulder to shoulder with men in brewery-logo jackets and haphazard beards. One witness described herself as simply "an avid drinker."
The chairman of the committee, Senator John Carona, a Republican from Dallas, acknowledged the tension surrounding his proposal.
"That bill has been filed to make sure we get all the interests at the table to discuss this," Carona said. "To those of you in the craft beer industry, I would say, 'Take a deep breath.'"
At that, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, explained his craft brewery legislation, a group of bills that would clear the path to grocery stores shelves for the custom-made concoctions favored by beer connoisseurs.
One bill would allow restaurants with in-house brewing facilities, including Metzger's Freetail Brewing Co., to package their beer for sale in retail stores.
Another would allow small breweries - such as New Republic in College Station, Real Ale in Blanco and St. Arnold in Houston - to sell beer for consumption on the premises during tours. Currently, some brewers get around the law by charging entry fees.
In a recent report for an industry trade group, Metzger counted 37 breweries and 41 brewpubs in the state. Together, they produced 133,000 barrels of beer in 2011, employing 1,244 people with a combined payroll of $24.5 million, Metzger wrote.
Eltife told the committee his bills could produce 52,000 more jobs over the next eight years.
The craft brewers have rallied support from the Beer Alliance of Texas, a breakaway group of distributors with significant statewide market share.
But similar measures have failed in the last two legislative sessions, under pressure from the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas. The group's lead lobbyist, Tom Spilman, signed up in opposition to the craft brewery bills, but declined to testify.
Carona, the committee chairman, explained his own proposal, Senate Bill 639, as "a placeholder for another viewpoint out there." Among other provisions, it would prohibit makers of alcoholic beverages from setting different prices for different wholesale distributors.
Opposition to the chairman's bill even emerged from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative policy research group that usually finds its views in close alignment with the Republicans who dominate the committee (and the legislature). Mario Loyola, a researcher at the foundation, said the bill would establish a "government-sponsored price-fixing cartel."
Having heard enough, Carona told the distributors, brewers and other interests to work out their differences. He said, "I want a deal, one way or the other, by 5 p.m. Monday."
TEXAS SENATORS MULL CONTENTIOUS SEX EDUCATION BILL
A Senate panel is considering proposed legislation prohibiting organizations linked to abortion providers from teaching sexual education in Texas schools.
The contentious measure by tea party Sen. Ken Paxton was hailed Tuesday by abortion opponents as a way to "exclude Planned Parenthood" from Texas classrooms.
But just how much school instruction Planned Parenthood provides is murky at best.
Witnesses lined up before the Senate Education Committee to criticize the group for online materials and guidance it provides teens. But they provided little evidence of Planned Parenthood's direct involvement in classrooms.
Paxton, a Republican from McKinney, also invited a small group of witnesses who preached the power of teaching abstinence.
Lawmakers in 2011 outlawed state funds for organizations linked to abortion providers. Subsequent lawsuits by Planned Parenthood sputtered.
TEXAS TEXTING AND DRIVING BILL ADVANCES
A proposal to ban texting behind the wheel is making progress in the Texas Capitol.
The House Transportation Committee voted 6 to 1 in favor of the bill on Tuesday. It moves to the full House for consideration. Texas has already banned any use of mobile devices by drivers under age 18.
Texting while driving is illegal in 39 states. Local ordinances ban the practice in cities including Austin, El Paso and San Antonio.
The new measure would extend the ban to all drivers statewide. Rep. Tom Craddick is calling it "the bipartisan bill of the session."
But Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a similar proposal in 2011. His views have not changed. He calls the idea "government micromanagement."
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"I don't mean to be trite about it, but my grandfather told me if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas." Republican Sen. Tommy Williams, declining to speculate about whether the Legislature would have cut public education spending in 2011 had state revenue estimates been closer to the mark.