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January 26th, 2009:

Swearingen gets a stay

Thank goodness.

Accused killer Larry Swearingen has been granted a second stay of execution.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit handed down the ruling this morning.

Swearingen was set to be executed by injection on Tuesday.

“We’re glad that someone has stepped in,” said Swearingen’s attorney James Rytting. “We think this is an extraordinary case of actual innocence. We’re hopeful that the federal courts will give the evidence a fair review.”

Swearingen has been on death row in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston since 2000. He was found guilty by a Montgomery County jury of kidnapping, raping and strangling 19-year-old Melissa Trotter on Dec. 8, 1998.

Monday’s ruling is the second time Swearingen has been given a reprieve. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals granted him a stay on Jan. 23, 2007, one day before his scheduled execution date.

[…]

In granting Swearingen another stay of execution, the federal appeals court said his due process rights were violated because his trial attorney failed to develop evidence from Trotter’s body tissue and did a poor job in cross examining [former Harris County medical examiner Dr. Joye] Carter. The panel also found that the state sponsored “false and misleading forensic testimony regarding when Trotter’s body was left in the forest.”

The same arguments were rejected by the state court.

Circuit Judge Jacques L. Wiener Jr. wrote a concurring statement, he said, “to address the elephant that I perceive in the corner of this room: actual innocence.”

Wiener said he sees a “real possibility” that the district court could view the new evidence “as clear and convincing evidence that the victim could not have been killed by the defendant.”

He noted, however, that lower federal courts dealing with actual innocence claims might have to deny relief to someone who is actually innocent because of existing Supreme Court rulings.

The appeal will now go back to a federal district judge for review.

Go read the Texas Monthly story if you haven’t already to review the details. Note how once again, a federal appeals court has slapped our morally bankrupt Court of Criminal Appeals for its indifference to due process and exculpatory evidence. What really needs to happen here is for Swearingen to get a new trial, but at least the executioner has been avoided for now. Kudos to the FIfth Circuit Court of Appeals and to Attorney Rytting.

Swearingen gets a stay

Thank goodness.

Accused killer Larry Swearingen has been granted a second stay of execution.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit handed down the ruling this morning.

Swearingen was set to be executed by injection on Tuesday.

“We’re glad that someone has stepped in,” said Swearingen’s attorney James Rytting. “We think this is an extraordinary case of actual innocence. We’re hopeful that the federal courts will give the evidence a fair review.”

Swearingen has been on death row in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston since 2000. He was found guilty by a Montgomery County jury of kidnapping, raping and strangling 19-year-old Melissa Trotter on Dec. 8, 1998.

Monday’s ruling is the second time Swearingen has been given a reprieve. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals granted him a stay on Jan. 23, 2007, one day before his scheduled execution date.

[…]

In granting Swearingen another stay of execution, the federal appeals court said his due process rights were violated because his trial attorney failed to develop evidence from Trotter’s body tissue and did a poor job in cross examining [former Harris County medical examiner Dr. Joye] Carter. The panel also found that the state sponsored “false and misleading forensic testimony regarding when Trotter’s body was left in the forest.”

The same arguments were rejected by the state court.

Circuit Judge Jacques L. Wiener Jr. wrote a concurring statement, he said, “to address the elephant that I perceive in the corner of this room: actual innocence.”

Wiener said he sees a “real possibility” that the district court could view the new evidence “as clear and convincing evidence that the victim could not have been killed by the defendant.”

He noted, however, that lower federal courts dealing with actual innocence claims might have to deny relief to someone who is actually innocent because of existing Supreme Court rulings.

The appeal will now go back to a federal district judge for review.

Go read the Texas Monthly story if you haven’t already to review the details. Note how once again, a federal appeals court has slapped our morally bankrupt Court of Criminal Appeals for its indifference to due process and exculpatory evidence. What really needs to happen here is for Swearingen to get a new trial, but at least the executioner has been avoided for now. Kudos to the FIfth Circuit Court of Appeals and to Attorney Rytting.

Harris County tackles jail overcrowding

Well, what do you know?

Harris County’s burgeoning jail population is expected to swell to 12,600 this spring, prompting newly elected officials to take a fresh look at ways to alleviate overcrowding, including releasing low-risk offenders.

The new sheriff, district attorney and eight new criminal district court judges will consider ideas championed for years by local lawmakers, defense lawyers and advocates for the poor and mentally ill.

The new Democratic judges, for example, have indicated they will consider releasing more low-risk offenders on personal bonds, returning to a policy virtually abandoned in recent years when Republicans controlled the courthouse. Such bonds, better known as personal recognizance bonds, allow defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to leave jail without having to post bail.

[…]

The county’s criminal district judges voted earlier this month to devote one court to felony cases involving defendants diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.

The idea is to defer those defendants to treatment, rather than to repeatedly jail them for relatively minor crimes such as loitering or trespassing.

New Republican District Attorney Pat Lykos also hopes to launch a pilot project to divert nonviolent, mentally ill defendants with less severe diagnoses to a secure facility where they can receive medical care and counseling.

Major Mike Smith, who runs the jails for new Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia, said he has been overwhelmed with requests for meetings with judges, prosecutors and other officials who want to discuss ideas for reducing the inmate population.

“That’s the ultimate answer — to get some of these people out of the jail and into other locales or in the free world where they’re under monitored supervision or enhanced bonding,” Smith said.

It’s a beautiful thing to see every involved agency working on this in a positive way, rather than just demanding more money to deal with their actions. Elections really do have consequences.

In November 2007, voters defeated a $245 million bond referendum to build a 2,500-bed jail downtown. Commissioners Court considered putting a new, smaller request on last November’s ballot, but decided against it.

Smith said it would be naive to think the county will never need a new jail, given its booming population.

“But I also don’t think we can build our way out of the overcrowding issue,” he added.

We’ve pretty clearly demonstrated that. I’m just glad to see that we’ve now finally recognized it. I look forward to seeing what can and will be done about it. Grits has more.

Harris County tackles jail overcrowding

Well, what do you know?

Harris County’s burgeoning jail population is expected to swell to 12,600 this spring, prompting newly elected officials to take a fresh look at ways to alleviate overcrowding, including releasing low-risk offenders.

The new sheriff, district attorney and eight new criminal district court judges will consider ideas championed for years by local lawmakers, defense lawyers and advocates for the poor and mentally ill.

The new Democratic judges, for example, have indicated they will consider releasing more low-risk offenders on personal bonds, returning to a policy virtually abandoned in recent years when Republicans controlled the courthouse. Such bonds, better known as personal recognizance bonds, allow defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to leave jail without having to post bail.

[…]

The county’s criminal district judges voted earlier this month to devote one court to felony cases involving defendants diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.

The idea is to defer those defendants to treatment, rather than to repeatedly jail them for relatively minor crimes such as loitering or trespassing.

New Republican District Attorney Pat Lykos also hopes to launch a pilot project to divert nonviolent, mentally ill defendants with less severe diagnoses to a secure facility where they can receive medical care and counseling.

Major Mike Smith, who runs the jails for new Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia, said he has been overwhelmed with requests for meetings with judges, prosecutors and other officials who want to discuss ideas for reducing the inmate population.

“That’s the ultimate answer — to get some of these people out of the jail and into other locales or in the free world where they’re under monitored supervision or enhanced bonding,” Smith said.

It’s a beautiful thing to see every involved agency working on this in a positive way, rather than just demanding more money to deal with their actions. Elections really do have consequences.

In November 2007, voters defeated a $245 million bond referendum to build a 2,500-bed jail downtown. Commissioners Court considered putting a new, smaller request on last November’s ballot, but decided against it.

Smith said it would be naive to think the county will never need a new jail, given its booming population.

“But I also don’t think we can build our way out of the overcrowding issue,” he added.

We’ve pretty clearly demonstrated that. I’m just glad to see that we’ve now finally recognized it. I look forward to seeing what can and will be done about it. Grits has more.

It’s 2009 and we’re still arguing about CHIP

It’s hard for me to believe that after all this time, and after all of the candidates who’ve lost elections over it, that the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a/k/a CHIP, still has dedicated opponents. It’s especially hard for me to believe that in this time of budget crunch, anyone would want to turn down the very generous federal matching funds that come with an expansion of CHIP, which by the way still isn’t at the level it was in 2003 when it was so drastically cut back. Yet here we are.

The debate over children’s health care this year will be as arduous as ever, but so is the ante: More than 160,000 Texas children whose cash-strapped parents can’t get state help to pay medical expenses for maladies as common as chronic ear infections or as daunting as cancer treatment.

The argument among legislators will be whether to raise income-eligibility levels so that those children can join the 451,000 now covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Supporters say reducing the number of uninsured youngsters — now one in five — would benefit not only the children’s physical health but the fiscal health of Texas taxpayers. The federal government picks up 72 percent of the cost and providing health care in doctors’ offices is almost always cheaper than treating children in public hospital emergency rooms.

Critics worry about undermining employer-sponsored health coverage and point to the growing costs for the state. CHIP enrollment increases over the past two years have driven the state’s tab from $102 million to $267.5 million.

Putting that increase in context, that $165.5 million increase in state funding for CHIP represents 0.2% of the state revenue total. It also surely represents a far smaller total than what counties and hospital districts would have paid for emergency room visits by otherwise-uninsured children. Honestly, I want to understand the argument against this, but I just can’t.

Well, there is this:

A pending federal bill that renews CHIP is expected to allow Texas to increase income limits so more can enroll. The current limit for a mother and two children of $35,200 could be increased to $52,800.
Sliding-scale proposal

State health and human services officials estimate the income expansion could draw 164,000 additional children to the program by 2012 at an annual cost to the state of about $100 million.

Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, said the price tag could be lowered if the middle-income families were charged premiums on a sliding scale. Cohen this week plans to introduce a bill that would expand CHIP and take advantage of the anticipated new federal funds.

“Since 2003, Texas has turned away almost $1 billion of federal matching funds by failing to invest in CHIP,” Cohen said. “As a result, we are left with the highest uninsured population of children in the nation.”

Cohen said getting the bill passed won’t be easy in a tight budget year when competing needs include Hurricane Ike recovery, public education and transportation.

Gov. Rick Perry’s spokeswoman, Allison Castle, said the governor does not support expanding CHIP’s eligibility standards because of the higher income families who would be covered. She said Congress is trying to lure the state into expanding programs in tough times and doing so would put the state on a “slippery slope to socialized medicine.”

Yes, I suppose I should have added the Slippery Slope To Solicalism! to my list of campaign issues for the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary. You can be sure that whichever way Kay Bailey Hutchison eventually votes on the S-CHIP bill that’s still pending in the Senate, she’ll get bashed for it by Rick Perry. Because we can’t have those looming specters in this state, nosiree.

In the current economy, where pay is being frozen for many workers, an automatic 3 percent raise should have been a blessing for Josh Hebert of Pasadena.

But he wants to turn back part of the hike because it bumped him over the CHIP limit.

The younger of Hebert’s two daughters, 3-year-old Katie, suffers from brain lesions that have triggered deafness in one ear, digestive problems and a host of other symptoms. His employer plan would cost 30 percent of the family’s monthly income and does not offer the type of comprehensive coverage that Katie gets through CHIP.

“It seems unbelievable that a cost-of-living raise can become a major crisis, but it is when our children’s health hangs in the balance,” said his wife, Kyla.

Yes, well, don’t you understand that the Slippery Slope To Socialized Medicine is more important than your daughter’s health? I’m sure Governor Perry and his supporters who care so much about the sanctity of life would be happy to explain it to you.

UPDATE: Rep. Ellen Cohen has filed HB787 to increase CHIP participation. The changes to the text of the statutes is simple:

[A] child who is younger than 19 years of age and whose net family income is at or below 300 [200] percent of the federal poverty level is eligible for health benefits coverage under the program.

[…]

During the sixth month following the date of initial enrollment or reenrollment of an individual whose net family income exceeds 285 [185] percent of the federal poverty level, the commission shall:

(1) review the individual’s net family income and may use electronic technology if available and appropriate; and

(2) continue to provide coverage if the individual’s net family income does not exceed the income eligibility limits prescribed by this chapter.

A press release from Rep. Cohen’s office is beneath the fold.

(more…)

It’s 2009 and we’re still arguing about CHIP

It’s hard for me to believe that after all this time, and after all of the candidates who’ve lost elections over it, that the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a/k/a CHIP, still has dedicated opponents. It’s especially hard for me to believe that in this time of budget crunch, anyone would want to turn down the very generous federal matching funds that come with an expansion of CHIP, which by the way still isn’t at the level it was in 2003 when it was so drastically cut back. Yet here we are.

The debate over children’s health care this year will be as arduous as ever, but so is the ante: More than 160,000 Texas children whose cash-strapped parents can’t get state help to pay medical expenses for maladies as common as chronic ear infections or as daunting as cancer treatment.

The argument among legislators will be whether to raise income-eligibility levels so that those children can join the 451,000 now covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Supporters say reducing the number of uninsured youngsters — now one in five — would benefit not only the children’s physical health but the fiscal health of Texas taxpayers. The federal government picks up 72 percent of the cost and providing health care in doctors’ offices is almost always cheaper than treating children in public hospital emergency rooms.

Critics worry about undermining employer-sponsored health coverage and point to the growing costs for the state. CHIP enrollment increases over the past two years have driven the state’s tab from $102 million to $267.5 million.

Putting that increase in context, that $165.5 million increase in state funding for CHIP represents 0.2% of the state revenue total. It also surely represents a far smaller total than what counties and hospital districts would have paid for emergency room visits by otherwise-uninsured children. Honestly, I want to understand the argument against this, but I just can’t.

Well, there is this:

A pending federal bill that renews CHIP is expected to allow Texas to increase income limits so more can enroll. The current limit for a mother and two children of $35,200 could be increased to $52,800.
Sliding-scale proposal

State health and human services officials estimate the income expansion could draw 164,000 additional children to the program by 2012 at an annual cost to the state of about $100 million.

Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, said the price tag could be lowered if the middle-income families were charged premiums on a sliding scale. Cohen this week plans to introduce a bill that would expand CHIP and take advantage of the anticipated new federal funds.

“Since 2003, Texas has turned away almost $1 billion of federal matching funds by failing to invest in CHIP,” Cohen said. “As a result, we are left with the highest uninsured population of children in the nation.”

Cohen said getting the bill passed won’t be easy in a tight budget year when competing needs include Hurricane Ike recovery, public education and transportation.

Gov. Rick Perry’s spokeswoman, Allison Castle, said the governor does not support expanding CHIP’s eligibility standards because of the higher income families who would be covered. She said Congress is trying to lure the state into expanding programs in tough times and doing so would put the state on a “slippery slope to socialized medicine.”

Yes, I suppose I should have added the Slippery Slope To Solicalism! to my list of campaign issues for the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary. You can be sure that whichever way Kay Bailey Hutchison eventually votes on the S-CHIP bill that’s still pending in the Senate, she’ll get bashed for it by Rick Perry. Because we can’t have those looming specters in this state, nosiree.

In the current economy, where pay is being frozen for many workers, an automatic 3 percent raise should have been a blessing for Josh Hebert of Pasadena.

But he wants to turn back part of the hike because it bumped him over the CHIP limit.

The younger of Hebert’s two daughters, 3-year-old Katie, suffers from brain lesions that have triggered deafness in one ear, digestive problems and a host of other symptoms. His employer plan would cost 30 percent of the family’s monthly income and does not offer the type of comprehensive coverage that Katie gets through CHIP.

“It seems unbelievable that a cost-of-living raise can become a major crisis, but it is when our children’s health hangs in the balance,” said his wife, Kyla.

Yes, well, don’t you understand that the Slippery Slope To Socialized Medicine is more important than your daughter’s health? I’m sure Governor Perry and his supporters who care so much about the sanctity of life would be happy to explain it to you.

UPDATE: Rep. Ellen Cohen has filed HB787 to increase CHIP participation. The changes to the text of the statutes is simple:

[A] child who is younger than 19 years of age and whose net family income is at or below 300 [200] percent of the federal poverty level is eligible for health benefits coverage under the program.

[…]

During the sixth month following the date of initial enrollment or reenrollment of an individual whose net family income exceeds 285 [185] percent of the federal poverty level, the commission shall:

(1) review the individual’s net family income and may use electronic technology if available and appropriate; and

(2) continue to provide coverage if the individual’s net family income does not exceed the income eligibility limits prescribed by this chapter.

A press release from Rep. Cohen’s office is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Derr files, Bradford contemplates

Karen Derr made her treasurer’s report filing on Thursday last week, becoming at least the second candidate for District H to do so. I know that Maverick Welsh has filed his report, and I know that as of Friday, Ed Gonzalez had not yet done so but would likely do it this week. Beyond that, I don’t know anyone else’s status. I think I may place a call to the City Secretary’s office this week to inquire about who has filed, and to ask why I can’t find that information online. It sure would be handy to have. I’ve reproduced a press release from Derr’s campaign beneath the fold. I figure with the opening of fundraising season a week from now, we’ll start to get a lot more action on this front.

In the meantime, I heard a report on Saturday that former HPD Chief and candidate for District Attorney CO Bradford is contemplating a run for an At Large City Council seat. Isaih Carey has now blogged about this – he’s looking at At Large #4, currently held by Ron Green, for which Noel Freeman has already filed his papers. As with all such contemplations, this may turn out to be nothing, but Bradford has been talked about as a citywide candidate before, and he would clearly be a strong contender for that seat. So we’ll see what happens.

One more report I heard on Saturday, which Carl Whitmarsh reminded me of in an email he sent out about his birthday party, which is where I heard both of these things, is that there’s another contender looking at District A: attorney Jeffrey Downing. He joins Bob Schoelkopf in expressing interest in that seat, and if Carl’s reaction is any indication, he’ll get the bulk of the Democratic support for that race. Which, as I’ve said, is enough to make a race of it in that district. This is going to be a fun year.

(more…)

Derr files, Bradford contemplates

Karen Derr made her treasurer’s report filing on Thursday last week, becoming at least the second candidate for District H to do so. I know that Maverick Welsh has filed his report, and I know that as of Friday, Ed Gonzalez had not yet done so but would likely do it this week. Beyond that, I don’t know anyone else’s status. I think I may place a call to the City Secretary’s office this week to inquire about who has filed, and to ask why I can’t find that information online. It sure would be handy to have. I’ve reproduced a press release from Derr’s campaign beneath the fold. I figure with the opening of fundraising season a week from now, we’ll start to get a lot more action on this front.

In the meantime, I heard a report on Saturday that former HPD Chief and candidate for District Attorney CO Bradford is contemplating a run for an At Large City Council seat. Isaih Carey has now blogged about this – he’s looking at At Large #4, currently held by Ron Green, for which Noel Freeman has already filed his papers. As with all such contemplations, this may turn out to be nothing, but Bradford has been talked about as a citywide candidate before, and he would clearly be a strong contender for that seat. So we’ll see what happens.

One more report I heard on Saturday, which Carl Whitmarsh reminded me of in an email he sent out about his birthday party, which is where I heard both of these things, is that there’s another contender looking at District A: attorney Jeffrey Downing. He joins Bob Schoelkopf in expressing interest in that seat, and if Carl’s reaction is any indication, he’ll get the bulk of the Democratic support for that race. Which, as I’ve said, is enough to make a race of it in that district. This is going to be a fun year.

(more…)

Lobby money

My first reaction upon reading this story about lobbyist spending on food and drink and entertainment for elected officials and their staff is the old chestnut about how government should be run like a business. People who say that, especially people who run for office on that kind of platform, are often ignorant about the ways in which the two are supposed to be different, but this is one area where the business model would be useful to emulate. That’s because businesses often have fairly strict rules about conflicts of interest and accepting gifts from other parties with whom you are doing or contemplating doing business, and those rules get enforced. A more businesslike approach here would not be a bad idea, to my mind.

Another way to approach this – all this assumes you think there’s something wrong with what was reported in the story; if you see no problems, then none of this matters – is to treat this kind of expense like campaign funds. Impose stricter rules on reporting them, and consider reasonable ways to put limits on these expenditures. Of course, as with campaign finances, this all breaks down if there isn’t an enforcement mechanism that has some teeth to it. But the model is a perfectly viable one, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any valid argument against greater transparency in this arena. Even if we did nothing else, shining some more light on this kind of spending would be a boon.

Finally, again as with campaign finances, I think it’s important to remember that whatever protestations the parties in question may make about the quid pro quo nature of these transactions, the simple fact is that rational, profit-maximizing enterprises would not spend this kind of money if they didn’t expect to get some kind of return on that money. As such, if one wanted to discourage or diminish this sort of thing, one could examine ways to increase its cost. Levying a tax on this kind of spending by lobbyists, for example, might have the desired effect, at least if the tax were steep enough. You could try the same approach for political contributions made by corporations, if one wanted to make the case in the inevitable lawsuit that corporations should not enjoy the same rights to make these contributions as individuals do. Regardless, such a tax if successfully imposed could then be used to fund the better enforcement mechanism I referred to earlier. It’s a win-win situation.

Of course, none of this will ever happen. Certainly, neither the politicians nor the lobbyists have any reason to want to change things, and frankly the voters by and large don’t pay it any attention, except for about five minutes after they read a story like this. Maybe some day the public will demand a change, but until then, expect very little to happen unless a big scandal occurs. In the meantime, you can take a look at how things are now via this handy database the Chron set up.

Lobby money

My first reaction upon reading this story about lobbyist spending on food and drink and entertainment for elected officials and their staff is the old chestnut about how government should be run like a business. People who say that, especially people who run for office on that kind of platform, are often ignorant about the ways in which the two are supposed to be different, but this is one area where the business model would be useful to emulate. That’s because businesses often have fairly strict rules about conflicts of interest and accepting gifts from other parties with whom you are doing or contemplating doing business, and those rules get enforced. A more businesslike approach here would not be a bad idea, to my mind.

Another way to approach this – all this assumes you think there’s something wrong with what was reported in the story; if you see no problems, then none of this matters – is to treat this kind of expense like campaign funds. Impose stricter rules on reporting them, and consider reasonable ways to put limits on these expenditures. Of course, as with campaign finances, this all breaks down if there isn’t an enforcement mechanism that has some teeth to it. But the model is a perfectly viable one, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any valid argument against greater transparency in this arena. Even if we did nothing else, shining some more light on this kind of spending would be a boon.

Finally, again as with campaign finances, I think it’s important to remember that whatever protestations the parties in question may make about the quid pro quo nature of these transactions, the simple fact is that rational, profit-maximizing enterprises would not spend this kind of money if they didn’t expect to get some kind of return on that money. As such, if one wanted to discourage or diminish this sort of thing, one could examine ways to increase its cost. Levying a tax on this kind of spending by lobbyists, for example, might have the desired effect, at least if the tax were steep enough. You could try the same approach for political contributions made by corporations, if one wanted to make the case in the inevitable lawsuit that corporations should not enjoy the same rights to make these contributions as individuals do. Regardless, such a tax if successfully imposed could then be used to fund the better enforcement mechanism I referred to earlier. It’s a win-win situation.

Of course, none of this will ever happen. Certainly, neither the politicians nor the lobbyists have any reason to want to change things, and frankly the voters by and large don’t pay it any attention, except for about five minutes after they read a story like this. Maybe some day the public will demand a change, but until then, expect very little to happen unless a big scandal occurs. In the meantime, you can take a look at how things are now via this handy database the Chron set up.

The lap bands of Collin County

I have four things to say about this story, which appeared in the print edition of Monday’s Chron but which I could not find on the chron.com site.

About 150 obese Collin County employees have achieved dramatic weight loss with lap-band surgery. And they’ve done it at taxpayer expense.

The county has spent more than $3 million in public money on stomach-reduction procedures in the past seven years, records show.

Each operation costs $15,000 to $30,000, and the county insurance plan covers almost all expenses.

“I’m totally against it,” said new county Commissioner Matt Shaheen, who took office Jan. 1.

He railed against the procedure at his first commissioners’ meeting last week and got plenty of support. Other commissioners said they were shocked at the number of lap-band surgeries performed and the expense incurred.

“I think it’s probably being used more than it was intended,” Commissioner Joe Jaynes said.

Commissioners say they intend to stop covering the procedure. They’re scheduled to vote on the issue at their Jan. 27 meeting.

“In an economic situation like we’re in now, we need all our spare dollars,” Commissioner Kathy Ward said.

Commissioners decided to cover the weight-loss operation several years ago in hopes of cutting down on long-term medical expenses. If morbidly obese employees lost weight, they would incur fewer costly health problems, commissioners reasoned.

Now, however, they say far too many of the county’s 1,700 workers are turning to lap-band surgery instead of relying on diet and exercise to shed weight.

“Employees can control what they put in their mouth,” Commissioner Jerry Hoagland said. “They don’t have to get a rubber band placed around their intestine, or however the procedure works, in order to lose weight.”

[…]

The county covered 14 lap-band operations at a cost of about $350,000 last year, records show. County Judge Keith Self, who heads Commissioners Court, asked the human resources department to determine if many public or private insurance plans cover the procedure.

Collin County is self-insured, meaning it pays employee health claims from the general fund budget.

“We have limited dollars,” Mr. Self said. “That’s what government is all about – allocation of scarce resources.”

1. If what I observed on the (now defunct) TV show Big Medicine was any indicator, the answer to Judge Self’s question is that some do and some don’t. The docs on Big Medicine spent a lot of time wrangling with insurance companies over coverage of their procedures. Big shock, I know.

2. As much as Collin County has spent on their employees getting this procedure over the past few years, if they really have that many morbidly obese folks on the payroll then it’s not clear to me that this hasn’t been fiscally prudent, at least in the long run. Perhaps they would be better served to tighten their approvals process rather than to just unilaterally disallow this. Maybe implementing a wellness program would be a good idea, too. You know, an ounce of prevention and all that.

3. At the very least, it seems to me they ought to get some better data about what benefits they may have gotten as a self-insurer, to compare to the costs. Surely they should know more about the pros and cons of lap band surgery versus other methods of weight management before they make a decision, lest they act as ignorantly as Commissioner Hoagland sounds. Who knows? Maybe if they had it to do all over again, they’d have done the same thing.

4. Whatever else one might say about Collin County Commissioners Court, they’re quite consistent in their attitude towards health care for their citizens.