Archive for the ‘The Texas Independent’ Category

Hours after federal judge blocks Texas’ Planned Parenthood ban, state files appeal

Posted on: May 1st, 2012 by Mary Tuma No Comments

Just hours after a federal judge ruled against Texas’ controversial decision to bar Planned Parenthood clinics from the vital Medicaid-based Women’s Health Program (WHP), Texas officials were quick to call for an appeal of the temporary injunction, adding another hurdle in the ongoing tug of war over basic reproductive health care.

Planned Parenthood affiliates filed suit in early April to contest the state’s enforcement of a rule prohibiting the clinics from taking part in the WHP because they provide abortions, despite the fact abortion services are not paid for by WHP and can’t legally be subsidized by federal or state funds. The suit challenges the state’s decision as “unconstitutional” under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and argues that women should be allowed to choose their health care provider without state interference. It also claims that the Health and Human Services Commission’s (HHSC) regulation violates Texas law, as it conflicts with the intention of the statutes that created the program.

In his Monday ruling, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel – appointed to the bench by George W. Bush in 2003– found that Texas is not allowed to exclude the centers from the federal program, as they collectively provide a “critical component” of the WHP. Doing so would likely be unconstitutional, Yeakel argued, since Texas is basing Planned Parenthood’s participation in the program on their abortion affiliation, services which are maintained as financially and legally separate and are constitutionally protected operations.

Shutting nearly 50 Planned Parenthood centers out of the WHP– a program that provides basic reproductive health care like birth control, cervical cancer and STD screenings to uninsured low-income women– would cause “substantial and irreparable harm” as clinics would be forced to close, lay off staff and reduce operating budgets, wrote Yeakel. And the damage isn’t limited to WHP patients, he wrote– if clinics are forced to close their doors or reduce hours, tens of thousands of other clients would be turned away, as well.

The exclusion would result in a “significant reduction in funding family-planning services” and deprive hundreds of thousands of women basic access to health care, especially in rural areas, the court noted, pointing to already beleaguered clinics in North and West Texas, Lubbock and Hidalgo County. The assurance by state health officials that they will find replacement providers for displaced rural women who rely on Planned Parenthood–an issue previously reported on by the Texas Independent–came under scrutiny by the judge.

“The court is unconvinced that Texas will be able to find substitute providers for these women in the immediate future, despite its stated intention to do so,” wrote Yeakel.

It is in the public interest to allow Planned Parenthood providers to continue their services within the WHP, he found.  The judge also expressed little faith in Texas’ ability to recoup the $35-40 million in federal funds lost due to its decision to cut Planned Parenthood out of the mix of providers.

“Although the Governor has instructed that the program is to continue fully funded by Texas, the current record gives the court no comfort that funds are or will be available to continue the program after the phase out of federal funds,” Yeakel wrote in his conclusion.

Patricio Gonzales, who heads Planned Parenthood Association of Hidalgo County– a poverty-stricken border area hit hard by budget cuts and bracing for additional slashes– called on Governor Rick Perry and the state to prioritize women and “set aside any vendetta they may have against Planned Parenthood.”

“No woman should ever have to fear being cut off from her doctor’s care because of shortsighted political games,” said Gonzales in a statement. “Legal action is always a last resort, but the state and Governor Perry’s actions gave us no other option. The health and well-being of our patients is our number-one priority. We hope that this decision will allow us to continue our lifesaving work of providing high-quality health care and cancer screenings to some of Texas’ most vulnerable women.”

In his concluding remarks, Yeakel stressed the ruling was not definite. A “thorough airing of the issue by trial” remains necessary. If the federal funds are phased out and Texas fails to salvage the program, the judge admitted the ruling “may be of no consequence.” A conference date to determine when the full trial will begin is scheduled for May 18.

Not wasting any time, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on behalf of HHSC Commissioner Tom Suehs responded by issuing an appeal in the hours following the ruling.

How Gov. Perry and state health officials will create a wholly Texas-run WHP program and come up with the millions in federal funds forgone because of their decision, and whether the program will continue at all are equally questionable at this point. Some fear the state will dismantle the program, as officials have publicly vowed to do if Planned Parenthood won the suit, according to the San Antonio Express-News earlier this month. HHSC says it will follow the ruling for now, but seems determined to stick by what officials view as a state’s rights issue.

“We received the judge’s order and will comply with the ruling, but we remain confident that federal law gives states the right to establish criteria for Medicaid providers,” said HHSC spokesperson Stephanie Goodman in an e-mail response.

When asked if cutting the life-saving Medicaid program altogether was still an option on the table now that the temporary injunction has been granted, Goodman said the department is in talks with the AG’s office to determine their next steps.

“We’ll need to carefully review the ruling and consult with the Attorney General’s Office before we make any decisions on the program’s future. One of things we’ll be looking at is whether the judge’s ruling allows for the creation of a state-funded program that excludes abortion providers and affiliates,” she said. “We remain committed to ensuring that the program ultimately complies with state law.”

In a statement released after the ruling, Perry spokesperson Catherine Frazier responded similarly.

“Texas has a long history of protecting life, and we are confident in Attorney General Abbott’s appeal to defend the will of Texans and our state law, which prohibits taxpayer funds from supporting abortion providers and affiliates in the Women’s Health Program,” she said. “We will continue to work with the Attorney General to pursue all available legal options.”

Perry and state officials argue their ability to block Planned Parenthood from the program is constitutionally sound under state law and have attacked the Obama administration’s “pro-abortion agenda” for disallowing their rule, despite a comparable block by the health administration under former President Bush, the Texas Independent reported. The ban is said to run counter to federal Social Security law and is therefore prohibited.

Planned Parenthood says it is keeping an eye on the state’s next move. For them, Texas’ speedy appeal is a sign that the fight is far from over.

“The state has given us every indication that they would end the program entirely,” said Planned Parenthood representative Erica Prosser. “We are waiting and watching to see what they do next.”

A copy of the preliminary injunction ruling can be read here. A copy of the state’s appeal can be read here.

(Photo Source: Flickr/WeNews)

U.S. companies selling drones to undisclosed foreign governments

Posted on: May 1st, 2012 by Teddy Wilson No Comments

A Texas-based defense contractor is selling drones overseas to foreign governments for use in combating narcotics trafficking and terrorism. Which countries are buying them and exactly how they are being used, however, is largely unknown. This uncertainty has led to calls from human rights activists for greater transparency and accountability for drone proliferation. (more…)

Amid state funding plan, doubt over displaced WHP client care remains

Posted on: April 24th, 2012 by Mary Tuma 3 Comments

In the ongoing volley between state health officials and the federal government over funding the Women’s Health Program (WHP), Texas laid out its plans last week to wholly take over the Medicaid program by November. Unwilling to allow abortion affiliates into the WHP, Texas lost out on 90 percent of its funding from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare (CMS) since the exclusion is said to run counter to federal law.

Sticking to what they see as their constitutional right to ban abortion providers from the program, the state is now prepared to create its own strategy to continue WHP– one that will shut out a major provider of the low-income care program and likely strain an already fragile network of family planning centers.

While the state’s plan to recoup the $30-$40 million in lost funding assumes those dollars will be found without cutting other services, another gap remains to be addressed. By nixing Planned Parenthood– centers that see about 46 percent of WHP clients or 130,000 women annually– the state’s plan forgoes subsidizing the single largest provider of basic reproductive care within the program. That rift is casting severe doubt from heads of Texas family planning centers over whether or not remaining providers have the resources to see and treat former Planned Parenthood clients.

The state’s health commission says it is taking proactive steps to ensure those Planned Parenthood patients find access to other providers during what they anticipate as a “seamless transition” to a state-run program.

“We are working on resources to help those women find new providers,” said HHSC spokesperson Stephanie Goodman. “We have a phone number posted on our website and we are building an online database for clients to look up the closest provider.”

HHSC is encouraging new providers to enroll in the WHP and asking existing providers to take on more clients. Goodman says discussions with large family planning clinics and individual OB/GYNs in the state which are able to comply with the rule and have the space to see new clients have been fruitful. Many of the 2,500 providers are not operating at full capacity, said Goodman.

However, that may not necessarily mean those clinics are able to handle the increased clientele caused by displaced Planned Parenthood patients– especially in rural areas, state family planning leaders say.

Tama Shaw, executive director of rural-based Hill Country Community Association (HCCA) and president of Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas (WHFPT), a network of reproductive health providers rooted in assisting more than 800,000 low-income women, says the space is just not there. After WHP cuts hit a Planned Parenthood center in Waco, clients started filtering to one of the Hill Country clinics north of the city. But “by no means” would the clinic have the capacity to take care of all its patients, she said.

As a possible alternative to those WHP clients originally served by Planned Parenthood, HCCA itself is spread thin. Not immune from the recent and deep slices to the state’s reproductive health funding, the network was forced to shutter five out of nine clinics after legislative budget cuts slashed Title X federal funds and placed the family planning clinics on the lowest tier of Title X funding, behind federally qualified health care providers (FQHC) and public community clinics. Today, HCCA relies on a temporary three-month extension for federal funds; without it they could be completely abolished. After 40 years in existence, Shaw’s network for low-income women has been shredded– right now, she says, they are “hanging in there.”

Kathryn Hearn, community services director at Planned Parenthood Association of Hidalgo County echoes Shaw’s concerns. About 80 percent of WHP participants in the border area come to Planned Parenthood, solidifying it as the largest provider of the program in the region– the next largest serves less than 500 people, she said. Treating some of the state and country’s poorest women, the association will have to turn away 6,500 patients if the WHP shuts down. There is simply no way surrounding clinics can integrate that number of patients, says Hearn.

“Of course there are other providers in this community for these women but we are already hearing– publicly and privately­– from so many of them that they cannot absorb this many patients into their clinics or private practices,” she said. “It’s a big problem.”

Many of the association’s patients rely on the WHP and Planned Parenthood as their sole care provider for preventative health. Travel time to other clinics in the surrounding areas would likely be a strain on low-income women in terms of transportation costs and time off work traveling. Without WHP they might end up in the emergency room, forced to pay out of pocket, said Hearn.

“We have spoken to women all over the county. We receive calls daily from women concerned about not only losing their health care but being forced to go somewhere other than Planned Parenthood. They’ve chosen to come to us as a trusted provider of choice, now they are scared,” said Hearn.

With an already beleaguered health care landscape– from FQHC and free-standing clinics to hospital districts– the idea that non-Planned Parenthood centers can absorb the additional patients is not feasible, says Fran Hagerty, executive director of WHFPT. In 2011, there were 72 women’s health care contract providers in the state, now there are 42.

“The clinics cannot even take care of the number of patients they served last year, much less new patients. Nobody is in a position to take on hundreds, let alone thousands of new clients. Everyone is at capacity,” said Hagerty. “What we are seeing are clinics defunded, going out of business and scaled way back in operations, that is if they are still viable. And so they are not able to take any more patients on.”

Health care leaders remain doubtful about the state’s reassurance that family planning centers and individual OB/GYNs can offset the loss of Planned Parenthood services. Time-consuming paperwork, low reimbursement rates, overburdened staff and long wait times make taking on WHP clients difficult for rural clinics and private doctors, says Shaw.

“Those on the front lines providing the services and treating the women know that it’s not true. Logic would have it that it’s not true– I think the rest is just rhetoric,” said Shaw, who testified during a Texas Senate committee hearing about the constraints rural clinics and patients face and the consequences of a deteriorated family planning network, including increased pregnancy and STD rates. “The rural capacity is not there and relying on individual physicians isn’t going to work. Where are these women going to go?”

Hearn reiterates the point that the Medicaid program is difficult to manage. “Many of these clinics just won’t find it cost-effective to absorb these additional patients,” she said.

Hagerty says she is in talks with HHSC to argue the capacity to treat WHP patients is not present. “I hope they are prepared for the reality of what’s coming– a situation in which women don’t have anywhere to go for health care.”

Hagerty and Shaw say the cuts will result in increased rates of STDs, abortions and Medicaid paid births– one of the central reasons WHP was created. According to a 2011 Legislative Budget Board estimation, the program would save the state $3.8 million in general revenue funds in preventative pregnancy-related costs over the next two years.

“It’s going to be a rude awakening when Texas ends up with a lot of low-income pregnant teenagers,” said Shaw.

CMS officials say they are still reviewing Texas’ extension plan. If they agree, the state will run the WHP beginning on Oct. 31, giving the feds five months to agree to continue funding the program. Whether or not CMS will agree is unclear at this point.

“We formally received their transition plan proposal yesterday and are considering the implications of the longer enrollment period,” said CMS spokesperson Alper Ozinal in an e-mail. “We will be working with the State to reach a mutually agreeable transition plan that complies with the law while protecting beneficiaries

(Photo Source: Flickr/WeNews)

Corporate and national security interests align in battle over CISPA

Posted on: April 23rd, 2012 by Teddy Wilson 3 Comments

Photo: Flickr/University of Exeter

After privacy activists and internet companies joined forces to derail the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), they are now on opposing sides in a fight over another piece of legislation seeking to regulate the internet. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) was introduced into the House of Representatives as HR 3523, and has 112 cosponsors. The legislation is scheduled to be voted on by the House on Wednesday. While lawmakers and corporate interests supporting the bill say it is necessary to help prevent cyber attacks, opponents claim that it is a federal overreach on par with SOPA.

Introduced by Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, CISPA was referred to the United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and was voted out of committee in December. The committee released a statement pointing to a number of reasons it believes the bill should be supported. The claims include that it helps businesses defend themselves from attacks, it keeps the federal government’s hands off the internet, protects Americans’ privacy, does not impose new federal regulations or mandates, and was written in the open in a bipartisan way.

If enacted it would allow the United States government and private companies to communicate about cyber security threats and share information. Opponents point to a clause in the bill stating that the information will be shared “notwithstanding any law,” which means that CISPA trumps any federal or state privacy law that currently prohibits disclosure of private information. In addition there are no limitations on what the information can be used for or how long it can be stored. The legislation also lacks transparency, as the sharing authorized by CISPA is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Unlike SOPA, internet and technology companies have been very supportive of the proposed law. Companies including AT&T, IBM and Verizon are supporting the legislation, and those and 25 other companies have written letters to Congress in support of CISPA. Tim McKone, AT&T executive vice president, wrote that AT&T supports CISPA “as an important and positive step in strengthening cybersecurity collaboration. The sharing of cyber threat and attack information is an essential component of an effective cyber-defense strategy, and the legislation helps to provide greater clarity for private sector entities.”

Some of the same companies that led the fight against SOPA and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) are supporting CISPA. Joel Kaplan, the Vice President of U.S. public policy at Facebook, wrote that CISPA “removes burdensome rules that currently can inhibit protection of the cyber ecosystem, and helps provide a more established structure for sharing within the cyber community while still respecting privacy rights.” Behind the scenes, Google helped craft the legislation. Rep. Rogers told the Hill that Google has “been helpful and supportive of trying to find the right language in the bill.”

Digital Trends has compiled a list of more than 800 companies and organizations that have provided either direct or indirect support for CISPA. In addition to internet and telecom companies, supporters include technology giants such as Microsoft and powerful defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin. Hundreds of companies are represented by powerful trade groups that support CISPA including the the Business Roundtable, Information Technology Industry Council, and National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

The Business Roundtable, which includes Bank of America, ExxonMobil, and General Electric as members, spends millions lobbying congress every year. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2011 the group spent $12.2 million lobbying on a range of issues from taxes to immigration. Among the legislation that the Business Roundtable has lobbied on is CISPA. Only Cisco Systems (also a member of the Business Roundtable) and National Cable & Telecommunications Association have lobbied as much the Business Roundtable for CISPA.

It is not just corporate interests that have been lobbying for CISPA. The National Security Agency (NSA) has been pushing to expand its role in preventing cyber attacks to the private sector. NSA officials have argued for expanded legal authority for the agency, and the ability to monitor the internet traffic of companies involved in critical infrastructure systems designated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While the NSA has issued reassurances that private information will not be monitored, the Obama Administration has blocked attempts by the agency to expand its role.

A grassroots coalition of civil liberties organizations and online activists have organized in opposition of CISPA, but without online giants such as Facebook and Wikipedia they have been unable to generate much public outcry. Organizations such as Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), the Sunlight Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have been mobilizing online activists through social media, and encouraging people to contact their representatives in congress to urge them to vote against the bill.

The co-sponsors of CISPA include seven lawmakers from the Texas congressional delegation. Rep. Michael Burgess, Rep. John Carter, Rep. Michael Conaway, Rep. Henry Cuellar, Rep. Ralph Hall, Rep. Michael McCaul, and Rep. Pete Olson are all co-sponsors. One notable congressman is not among the list of cosponsors. Rep. Lamar Smith who was the architect and primary supporter of SOPA, has not signed on to cosponsor CISPA. As the Texas Independent reported, because of SOPA, Smith was targeted by online grassroots activists for defeat in the Texas Republican primary.

According to information compiled by MapLight, campaign contributions from interest groups supporting CISPA are twelve times the amount of contributions from groups opposed. During the 2012 election cycle $31.5 million has been contributed by supporters compared to the $2.5 million from opponents. Burgess received $84,750 in campaign contributions from supporters of CISPA. Carter received $120,000, Conaway received $68,250, Cuellar received $51,400, Hall received $79,434, McCaul received $159,044, and Olson received $72,300 all from supporters of CISPA.

Top stories photo credit: Flickr/photosteve101

Violence Against Women Act faces unprecedented opposition, little support from Texas lawmakers

Posted on: April 19th, 2012 by Teddy Wilson No Comments

The gridlock of Washington, D.C. has made even domestic violence a partisan issue. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is but the latest chapter in a political battle for one of the most significant electoral constituencies. Republicans claim their opposition to the reauthorization is due to Democratic additions to the legislation, while Democrats have framed Republican opposition as a continuation of the “war on women.”

Originally passed under Title IX of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, VAWA for years enjoyed bipartisan support. The legislation was passed in the House on a vote of 235-195 with 46 Republicans voting in favor. In the Senate it passed 61-39 with support from seven Republicans. The law included funding to enhance investigation and prosecution of violent crimes perpetrated against women, imposed automatic and mandatory restitution on those convicted, and allowed civil redress in cases prosecutors chose not to pursue.

The subsequent reauthorizations of VAWA have received even greater bipartisan support. In 2000 the reauthorization passed the House 371-1, and the Senate voted for passage 95-0. The latest reauthorization took place in 2005. It was passed by the House 415-4, and passed in the Senate by unanimous consent. But like the debt ceiling, what was once considered routine has now become a point of contention between the parties.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, told the New York Times that his opposition to the reauthorization was due to “matters put on that bill that almost seem to invite opposition.” Additionally Republicans claim that the bill uses opposition to domestic violence to expand protected groups to include undocumented immigrants and members of the GLBT community. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told the Times that it “creates so many new programs for underserved populations.”

Jess McIntosh, deputy communications director of EMILY’s List, told the Texas Independent that VAWA has never been a partisan issue before. “That it is today is a testament to how reflexively anti-woman the Republican Party has become,” said McIntosh. “Sadly, this is just the latest front in the GOP war on women. Democratic women in Congress are fighting back, and it’s absolutely critical that we send them more reinforcements in November.”

McIntosh took issue with Grassley’s comment. “Republicans are objecting to the Violence Against Women Act because it helps too many women? Forgive me if I think that’s a lousy argument,” said McIntosh. McIntosh also criticized Texas lawmakers for their opposition. “It’s about time Texas has senators who put women and families before partisan ideology. This is non-controversial legislation that every member of Congress should be able to support.”

One of the original advocates of the original VAWA was the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV). According to the TCFV website, the organization is “committed to ending sexual violence in Texas through education, prevention and advocacy.” In March the TCFV and the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) jointly called on Republican Texas Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison and all members of Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

According to the statement, in 2011 Texas utilized $8.8 million in VAWA funding. “This federal leadership and funding fostered safety for the 11,833 adult victims and 14,578 children that sought shelter from domestic violence programs in fiscal year 2011,” read the statement. “Rape crisis centers used VAWA and other funding to serve victims by answering nearly 34,000 sexual assault hotline calls to Texas rape crisis centers and serving more than 15,000 sexual assault victims through support groups.”

Despite the calls for support, few Texas lawmakers have publicly supported the reauthorization of VAWA. Of the 51 sponsors of HR 4271 only two are from the Texas delegation: Democrats Rep. Rubén Hinojosa and Rep. Silvestre Reyes. There is no Republican sponsor of the House legislation. Neither Sen. John Cornyn nor Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is not running for reelection, are among the 60 sponsors of S 1925. Of the 60 sponsors, eight are Republicans.

Mitra Salasel, communications coordinator for the Texas chapter of Annie’s List, told the Texas Independent that the politicization of VAWA is “unfortunate” and a move that is indicative of a “larger trend of anti-women policies” playing out on the national level and also here in Texas. “It’s not surprising that the Texas delegation is not out in front on this,” said Salasel.

Salasel says that the lack of support from Texas lawmakers reflects the culture created by the political leadership in Texas. “The state is led by Gov. Rick Perry, who has pushed to have women undergo unnecessary procedures that are not about women’s health but about his political ideology. This battle has been playing out for months on the Texas level. Perry and everyone that follows his lead has made their primary agenda about cutting women’s access to health care.”

(Image of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn from WikimediaCommons/https://cornyn.senate)

Proposed abortion reporting rule meant to ‘intimidate’ physicians, say critics

Posted on: April 18th, 2012 by Mary Tuma No Comments

A proposed requirement by the state’s health services department would force doctors to collect detailed information about Texas women who seek abortions. Initially drawn up by Republican Rep. Bill Zedler during the 82nd legislative session, the new requirements would expand the scope of what a doctor must report to the state when performing an abortion. While health officials say the rules are important for demographic reasons, some pro-choice advocates and OB/GYNs argue the additional reports only serve to create a burdensome and intimidating climate for abortion-providing physicians.

Currently, doctors must disclose to the state information about the patient’s marital status, race, age and number of prior abortions and births. The “updated” requirements add data like the woman’s highest level of education, how she verified the pregnancy, the date of her last menstrual cycle, whether or not the woman viewed printed health materials (such as the controversial “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet) prior to the abortion and whether the ultrasound image of the fetus, a description of the image and an audible heartbeat were made available by the doctor.

Zedler’s original legislation, HB 1602, would have required the collection of even more granular details. The information was desired to maintain enough statistical data to, “aid in providing proper maternal health assistance, regulation, and education,” for women, according to the bill text. Zedler called for data on the age of the unborn child’s father, the method of contraception used that led to the pregnancy, why the woman chose to have an abortion (in checklist form), the number of miscarriages the woman has undergone and specific information regarding the woman’s educational background, among other particulars. The representative did not return calls for comment.

Zedler’s bill didn’t make it through a GOP super majority House last session, but is seeing new life through the Department of State Health Services (DSHS)–a move drawing criticism from abortion providers and pro-choice advocates who see the maneuver as both intrusive and a bypass of the legislative process, reproductive rights news site RH Reality Check recently reported.

During a DSHS stakeholder meeting earlier this month, the point of most concern among the groups was a requirement that forces doctors to report any complications caused by the procedure within 20 days. Since abortion facilities are already required to report such complications to the state department, meeting attendees called the new rule, “redundant and potentially intimidating.”

Dr. Curtis Boyd, a Texas-based abortion provider and OB/GYN, echoed these concerns. Boyd told the Texas Independent the proposed rule was not only repetitive but would exacerbate an increasingly hostile environment for the state’s abortion providers and their patients. While current requirements mandate facilities report information, the new rule would target individual, private-care doctors likely unfamiliar with the reporting process.

“This is going to discourage doctors from providing abortion services,” said Boyd. “There will be a fear that they may be identified and open to harassment, or penalized for not reporting certain information. Why aren’t they asking for additional reporting in other specialties? This is not about public health or patient health, this is about ensuring one legislator’s anti-abortion agenda is pushed through.”

Boyd pointed to the state’s recently enacted sonogram law–a requirement that forces abortion providers to show and describe the heartbeat of the fetus before the procedure–as evidence this new rule is just one more attempt to intimidate abortion physicians. Failure to comply with the law can result in criminal charges, a hefty fine and revocation of medical licenses. There is no warning, no caution, no inspection–the punishment is meant to intimidate the doctor, said Boyd.

“Like the sonogram law we’ve been dealing with as physicians, these rules are another way to shame and guilt women and their doctors,” he said. “It’s disrespectful to women. There is no doubt this is anti-abortion, anti-birth control and anti-woman.”

The most “disturbing” aspect, says Boyd, is that after failing to cull enough support during session, the bill language managed to evade the legislative process and debate and be sent directly to the state’s health department for rulemaking.

“Clearly this legislator has his own anti-abortion agenda and instead of using the democratic process he has gone around to the state and asked for a pass,” said Boyd. “Is this going to lead to other legislators pushing bills without going through the process?”

But Department of Health and Human Services (DSHS) spokesperson Carrie Williams said the course of action isn’t abnormal. During special session, the DSHS, along with the Health and Human Services Commission agreed to look at Zedler’s proposed additional requirements and figure out if they could possibly adopt some of those elements by rule, she said.

“It’s common for us to take stakeholder and legislative input at any point in time,” said Williams. “We are always in the rule writing process. We are required by law to make sure our rules are evolving and regulating the best interest of patients. Our goal is to make improvements based on public health expertise and regulatory function.”

As for concern over making sensitive patient information available for public view, the DSHS says the law is highly restrictive about what information can be provided. For instance, while data may be viewable online, the identity of the doctor, facility and patient is kept confidential.

Drafted language of the proposed rule was presented earlier this month. DSHS plans to present the final copy of the updated requirements to its decision-making committee on June 14. Williams says the new rule is a work in progress and the department is in the process of collecting feedback and taking comments under consideration. “It’s a launching off point. We are open for discussion and can make adjustments as we move forward,” she said.

(Sonogram image: CreativeCommons/checkstaticlines)

Texas A&M students form group to oppose outsourcing at the university

Posted on: April 12th, 2012 by Teddy Wilson No Comments

Texas A&M University (Photo: Flickr/sarowen)

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp is looking to save money through outsourcing, and a group of Texas A&M University students plan to rally the student body in opposition.

The Texas Tribune reports that Sharp is seeking bidders to outsource food services, janitorial services, building maintenance and landscaping. Those four services currently comprise 1,880 employees with an annual budget of $92.3 million.

This has caused a stir among faculty and staff. According to the Bryan-College Station Eagle, the Texas A&M Faculty Senate is in unanimous opposition to the plan. The body passed a resolution that states the senate opposes “the move to outsource Texas A&M services without the due diligence of shared governance.” During a town hall meeting with Sharp, staff members shared their concerns about the possibility of losing their jobs.

“There hasn’t been a strong student voice in the matter,” said Valery Owen, one of the organizers of the student protest. “These are services that directly affect the students, and we should have a say in what happens. In addition, one of the main reasons given for the potential outsourcing is to help the students by keeping tuition low, so the students should certainly have a say in what is decided.”

The group says that the university administration has pursued the changes under the guise of keeping tuition low for students, but they take issue with using students as an excuse to make changes they say will have negative impacts. “Human beings are not expendable,” said Owen. “The people whose jobs are being jeopardized are human beings and deserve to be treated as such. Although we believe that keeping tuition low should be a priority, it should not be at the expense of loyal employees, many of which are making relatively low wages.”

“One major goal of the student protest is to show the administration that there are plenty of students who oppose outsourcing,” said Owen. The group hopes that it raises awareness and support among students who may not have known about this situation otherwise. “We also want the people whose jobs are being affected by the potential outsourcing to know that there are students who stand behind them and care more about human beings than money.”

Using social media and other online tools has been part of the group’s strategy to raise awareness. A Facebook event page has been created to inform students of the protest, and 74 people have confirmed their plans to attend a protest today. The group will meet at the Sul Ross statue in Academic Plaza at 4:30 pm, and participants are encouraged to bring signs. An online petition at Change.org has attracted more than 170 signatures from those who oppose the administration’s outsourcing plan. “No matter what the turnout is like, the petition and protest together is evidence that the students are not unanimously supportive of outsourcing,” said Owen. “We are hoping media coverage will make even more people aware of outsourcing, and the effect it would have on so many people’s lives.”

Terrance Edmond, a student senator, told the Texas Independent that the long term effects of outsourcing will be an excessive turnover rate for employees working under contractual terms. “While numerically, outsourcing may allow the A&M system to shift cost, high turnover rate among potential employees will inevitably reduce quality,” said Edmond.

”Most employees that have worked for Texas A&M University for ten plus years have not done so for their salary,” said Edmond. “Many of the employees maintain job stability for the sake of organizational connection, benefits, and the assurance of working for a public institution. Even if these very benefits were mirror imaged into the private companies’ plan, the conditions by which the benefits are executed will change due to operational differences. Long-term, you will have a Texas A&M University that is no longer an institution, but an operation.”

To back up their claims, the group points to a report by the Association of College Unions International that examines how outsourcing affects the university culture as a whole. According to the report, potential downsides of outsourcing include “loss of institutional control of the outsourced area, human resource problems, and campus exposure to additional risks such as bankruptcy or the sale of a company.” The report concludes that “Outsourcing is not conclusively helpful or harmful to campus climate.”

Top Stories Photo Credit: Flickr/oneservant2go

Planned Parenthood affiliates file federal suit against Texas over WHP exclusion

Posted on: April 11th, 2012 by Mary Tuma No Comments

After banishing Planned Parenthood centers from inclusion in the Women’s Health Program (WHP) because of their status as abortion providers, the state now faces a federal lawsuit from the reproductive health center affiliates in Texas.

Filed in an Austin district court Wednesday morning, the suit challenges the state’s decision as “unconstitutional” under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and argues that women should be allowed to choose their health care provider without state interference. The suit asks for a preliminary injunction to stop the recently signed rule excluding Planned Parenthood from going into effect April 30, and to allow the centers to continue their involvement with WHP.

It also claims that the Health and Human Services Commission’s (HHSC) controversial regulation is in violation of Texas law, as it conflicts with the intention of the statutes that created the program.

As the Texas Independent previously reported, the ban caused Texas to lose its federal funding for the program – amounting to 90 percent of WHP’s budget, or about $35 million­ a year–because the decision puts Texas at odds with federal Medicaid law. While the state rule banning Planned Parenthood from WHP, backed by Gov. Rick Perry, HHSC and Attorney General Greg Abbott, is aimed at ensuring no federal dollars go toward abortion providers, state and national law already prohibit taxpayer money from subsidizing the service. A concurrent lawsuit, filed by Abbott and the state last month, charges the federal government with acting unconstitutionally by cutting funding for the program, which that suit deems an infringement of state’s rights, the Independent reported.

Planned Parenthood centers in Austin, Hidalgo, Lubbock, Cameron Willacy Counties, San Antonio, Central Texas, Gulf Coast, North and West Texas have banded together to fight the new state rule that would effectively leave more than 130,000 low-income women without access to family planning services. Nearly half of WHP recipients use Planned Parenthood for services, making it the single largest provider of reproductive care within the program. The Medicaid-based WHP delivers basic reproductive services like breast and cervical cancer screenings, birth control, hypertension and STD testing and treatment to some of the state’s neediest women.

Rene Resendez, a 24-year-old West Texas college student and WHP patient, is one of those low-income, uninsured women in danger of losing important services she has relied on for the past five years. After the Odessa Planned Parenthood center in her area closed due to WHP cuts, Resendez is now forced to trek one hour to neighboring Midland for care– to a clinic that has seen reduced hours due to legislative budget cuts that are expected to reduce health care access to another 160,000 mostly low-income women. As the Texas Independent reported, some 2,500 women must now travel elsewhere for basic services after the Odessa branch shuttered in early March. During a Wednesday morning media conference call, Resendez recounted the integral role the family planning center played in testing, detecting and referring treatment of her mother’s cervical cancer and worried aloud if she would be able to access that same care today.

“Without the Women’s Health Program and Planned Parenthood I don’t know what I would do or where I will go for cancer screenings and other services I need,” said Resendez. “Planned Parenthood has been a place my family can trust. I should be able to decide who provides my health care.”

West Texas is not alone in seeing health care choices reduced. Concentrated low-income areas along the Texas-Mexico border, where the need for access is even greater, have also seen clinics close. Feeling the effects already, Patricio Gonzales, lawsuit plaintiff and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Hidalgo County, says the WHP cuts have slashed 50 percent of the area’s budget. In addition to the four Planned Parenthood centers forced to shut down since September due to massive family planning cuts, Gonzales anticipates two to three more Planned Parenthood closures by the end of May directly due to exclusion from WHP. The area he oversees includes some of the poorest women not only in the state, but the country –­90 percent live at or below the federal poverty line, he says.

“Worst of all, my fear is that women will forgo life-saving screenings, comprehensive exams, reliable birth control and other vital preventative health care services,” said Gonzales. “It would have a devastating consequence for their health, including undetected cancers, untreated diseases and unintended pregnancies, which will result in more abortions.”

The “unconstitutional” rule, he continued, “unfairly punishes” tens of thousands of women who rely on the WHP. Planned Parenthood is the largest women’s health provider in the region. Gonzales said no other clinics can adequately absorb the 6,500 patients Planned Parenthood sees in the area. Additionally, many of the women relying on WHP typically must use public transportation and experience longer wait times for care. The center, like Odessa and the eleven other centers forced to close their doors due to funding cuts, does not provide abortions.

Pete Schenkkan of Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody, the attorney representing Planned Parenthood in the suit, says Texas can’t deny the centers from funding simply because of the affiliation with abortion, which is administered through legally and financially separate entities. By doing so, the state violates its own rules and defeats the inherent purpose of the health program, he says. Excluding Planned Parenthood violates Planned Parenthood’s constitutional rights, plaintiffs argue, because it imposes an unlawful restriction on their participation in the program. And even if Gov. Perry and state officials do take on closing the funding gap created by the lack of federal dollars, as they’ve intended, the suit’s premise still applies.

“This rule impermissibly penalizes Planned Parenthood, and has the effect of restricting Texans’ access to health care,” said Schenkkan. “We are asking the court to ensure that Planned Parenthood can continue to provide Women’s Health Program services to these women.”

Randall Ellis, senior director of government relations at Legacy Community Health Services in Houston, reminded conference call participants that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the country, with one-fourth of women living without health insurance. He said that by removing Planned Parenthood as a provider in the Medicaid program, the health risks of Texas women– especially minorities, women of color and those who reside in rural areas– escalate dramatically.

“We don’t think Governor Rick Perry or HHSC should be telling women of Texas where they receive their health care and when they receive their health care,” said Ellis.

To read a copy of the complaint click here.

(Photo: Flickr/WeNews)