Don’t get me wrong, Texas should have expanded Medicaid at its first opportunity. It would do so much to improve health care in the state, including and especially mental health care, which would have significant spillover effects on criminal justice. Other states have passed voter referenda mandating Medicaid expansion, but those states can do that via citizen petition. They don’t have to go through their legislature, which is a requirement here and the place that the effort will go to die.
Seeing other states take Medicaid expansion to voters is what Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, says gave her the idea to file House Joint Resolution 40. She said she’s frustrated that Texas “has not shown the political fortitude” to expand the program and that giving the decision to voters may take political pressure off of Republicans.
Expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — has been a nonstarter in the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature. Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry have argued that expanding Medicaid would increase health care costs for the state — especially if the federal government ever breaks its promise to help pay for the surge of newly eligible people.
Israel’s strategy so far has included courting Republicans in districts that have lost rural hospitals. Nineteen rural hospitals have closed permanently or temporarily since 2013, according to the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals.
“I’m getting mixed responses,” Israel said of her progress. “I’m making the case that we have lost so many rural hospitals in Texas, and one of the reasons we wouldn’t have lost those rural hospitals is if we had said yes to expanding Medicaid.”
Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning policy organization, said the 2018 election cycle and polls showed that health care is a top issue for voters.
“The bottom line is even though individual members have seen desirability moving in this direction, it’s not something they’re going to fall on their sword and buck their leadership over,” Dunkelberg said.
State Rep. John Zerwas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, attempted an alternative to Medicaid expansion during the 2013 session. The Richmond Republican’s House Bill 3791 would have allowed Texas to receive federal money in the form of block grants to enroll individuals in a private health plan using a sliding-scale subsidy, rather than expanding Medicaid to cover them. The bill also had a “pull the plug” provision if the federal government failed to continue funding. It had some bipartisan support but never reached the House floor for a vote.
He said Medicaid expansion in general still “comes with political radioactivity” that Republicans are hesitant to deal with. Just pursuing a waiver is still “a pretty steep hill to climb.” Zerwas said he doesn’t plan on bringing his bill back and also doesn’t believe Medicaid expansion needs to be taken to voters. He acknowledged that Texas has the highest number of uninsured people in the country but says there’s not a cost-effective way to provide care for the Medicaid population.
“It’s just politics, you know, and I’ve lived through this by virtue of carrying the bill in 2013 and was portrayed as someone who just loved Obamacare and was looking to grow it in the state of Texas,” Zerwas said. “Politically and in my party especially at that time and still so … it continues to be one of those things that Republicans rail against because they see it as a very heavy cost to the state.”
But Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, who filed Senate Joint Resolution 34, which also would create a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid, said that “it should not take a leap of courage to put this on the ballot.” Amid Texas’ problems with the opioid epidemic, maternal mortality and access to mental health services, he said, it would be difficult for lawmakers to go back to their constituents and tell them why they refused to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot.
“It starts to become a bit of an embarrassment,” Johnson said. “I think we have the potential to be a leader in health care. … We have vast resources and tremendous amount of power and will when we decide to employ it.”
I agree with everything Rep. Israel and Sen. Johnson say. As you know, I’ve been beating the drum for Medicaid expansion in Texas since 2011. It’s just that there’s zero Republican support for it – Rep. Zerwas’ watered-down version went nowhere, and no one is coming up behind him with something else. A constitutional amendment, which is what a Joint Resolution is and the only way the Lege can send something to the voters, requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber to pass. It’s highly unlikely there’s a simple majority for this in the House, and zero chance of that in the Senate. What Israel and Johnson and others are doing is valuable and necessary and sure to be a big campaign issue again in 2020. What it’s not is legislation that will pass, not while Republicans are in charge.