February 17, 2011


Saenz: Valley will be hit hardest by cuts in children's health care

17 February 2011
Jesse Bertron

AUSTIN, Feb. 17 - Advocates for children’s health descended on the capitol to raise their voices against a budget proposal that that Luisa Saenz of the Children’s Defense Fund-RGV calls, “very, very grim.”

According to a study by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, House Bill 1 knocks a 13 percent off of funding for children’s services. The study says one of the biggest losers will be children’s health care, which will shed $4.3 billion in state funds, a 14 percent decrease from 2010-11 levels.

Children’s Defense Fund Vice-Chair Lan Bentsen came to Austin to speak at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services hearing. He said that one of the major problems with the budget is that it makes permanent cuts in response to a temporary economic problem. Bentsen explained that unlike the “structural deficit” at work in education budgeting, the current shortfall in health care funding is tied to the recent dip in the economy. The McAllen-born businessman cautioned against cutting what he sees as vital services to address a one-time shortfall.

“This [shortfall] is like a major chuckhole in a highway. We can either fill the chuckhole in or we can lower all the roads. They’re talking about lowering all the roads.”

Bentsen, who was raised in the Rio Grande Valley by his father, the late Lloyd Bentsen, a former U.S. senator for Texas, said that such a temporary shortfall is exactly the kind of situation that the Rainy Day Fund was meant for. Saenz, the CDF’s Rio Grande Valley director, agrees.

“The Rainy Day Fund is for times like these. What do you want? It’s a deluge of uncontrollable health care costs that are going to skyrocket,” Saenz said.

Saenz wonders why legislators would boot health care costs down to the local level, especially since areas that most need health care services may be the most unable to deal with the higher private insurance premiums and lower Medicaid payouts that will result from cuts in health care funding. She said if the cuts are enacted, state legislators would be passing on an unfunded mandate to the counties.

She also said the Valley would be disproportionately hit the hardest because it has a younger population than other parts of the state, with many parents relying on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program for their children.

“Why are they pushing the taxes back on us? We are the poorest counties. We’re the poorest area in the state. Our tax base isn’t there. How in the world can they turn around and expect the taxpayers down here to foot the bill?” asked Saenz, who said she knows of many doctors who had already stopped accepting Medicaid patients due to lowered reimbursement rates.

Saenz cautioned that the loss of health care services had the potential to disrupt another vulnerable area of the Valley’s economy. She pointed to La Joya ISD, a district with over 30,000 students and no community health care clinic. She warned that the increased difficulty in obtaining private health care with Medicaid coverage would prompt some parents to simply stay out of the doctor’s office. And that, she says, could hurt school funding, which is tied to attendance.

“Kids get sick, their parents don’t have any place to take them, they’re going to stay home until they can more or less get them back on their feet. But they’re going to be out of school four to five days. That’s a loss to the district.“

“A lot of our families would go across the river to Mexico for care, because they could go over there for eight to ten dollars, and get a doctor, get their shot, and get their medication. Well, nobody’s going over there anymore because of the violence,” Saenz said.

“All those people that used to go to Mexico are now depending on the local providers and the health clinics down there are swamped. They have waiting lists.”

Although the situation appears desperate, Saenz said that the work continues of helping families stay healthy. She pointed to a program in the Valley that trains high school students to help children and their families fill out the paperwork needed to help them get affordable healthcare. Saenz hopes to turn that program into a voter registration drive, so that a current fiscal crisis ushers in a new generation of political leaders. Somehow, she hopes, political accountability will be preserved.

“They (legislators) are going to have to answer to those children as to why they’re not getting the care they deserve. Sooner or later,” Saenz said.

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