Houston Chronicle. April 28, 2016.
The face of ACA: Stonewalling on Obamacare and expansion of Medicaid isn't saving any money or lives
Mark could fix anything. Light switch out? Call Mark. Roof leaking? Call Mark. Refrigerator broken? Bathroom needs remodeling? Sprinkler system out of whack? Call Mark. He would appear in a flash and fix it. No fuss, no muss, keys jangling on his belt, ponytail neatly tied back. What he couldn't fix was his health. Mark suffered from Hepatitis C. Recent advances in treatment could cure him, but they are outrageously expensive: $84,000 for a course of one such drug, more than Mark could pay. He had no insurance. He could not get insurance at any price because he had a pre-existing condition. The Affordable Care Act took effect just in time to treat the liver cancer that was a direct result of his untreated Hep C. But not in time to save Mark's life. He died for lack of insurance. He was 58.
This page doesn't often use anecdotal tales to make its point. But a recent report from Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association paints a statistical picture of its post-Affordable-Care-Act policyholders, and those statistics need a face — a hard-working, honest, loving father and grandfather face like Mark's. According to Blue Cross, its newly insured customers are sicker than their neighbors who were lucky enough to have had consistent and adequate health care. They have higher rates and more advanced cases of diabetes, HIV, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, Hep C, and their care is more costly. As a result, Blue Cross plans in many states are raising premiums.
Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail beat their chests and declared they had been right all along about the impending economic catastrophe created by Obamacare. But health policy experts weren't surprised that there were a lot of sick people with pent-up demand. These are the same patients who were treated in emergency rooms at much greater expense to taxpayers and health-care systems. In setting up the ACA marketplaces, some insurance companies underestimated the scale of these demands and are raising their premiums now to cover the increase in claims. Some companies are pulling out of the ACA marketplace altogether. But these are adjustments expected in a new program, the experts say, and Blue Cross also reported that its programs will get its new customers healthier quickly and keep them healthy, which should moderate costs over time. The flood of expensive, very sick patients will ebb as the country's health improves. The real catastrophe is the millions of Americans in need of medical care who couldn't get it before the ACA.
If the Republicans in Congress continue their crusade to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they should explain in detail their version of a health-care plan that would offer coverage for pre-existing conditions, provide for young adults supported by their parents, prevent insurance companies from canceling a policy whenever a claim is made, and deal with the 1.2 million Texans who now have access to the state's world-class medical system but would lose it if the ACA is repealed.
And the Texas Legislature should move to expand Medicaid coverage. Refusing to do so has already cost the state about $18 billion in federal subsidies and kept Texas at the top of the infamous list of states with the most uninsured citizens — 5 million at last count.
While we believe providing adequate health care is an ethical obligation, the financial argument is also a powerful one. All of us pay for the uninsured through higher hospital costs, higher insurance premiums and higher property taxes. The Legislature's hyperpartisan stonewalling on the ACA and Medicaid expansion isn't saving any money for Texas taxpayers, and it certainly isn't saving lives. Mark worked hard. He raised his family. He paid his taxes. He should not have died from a disease that could be treated. He deserved better. We all deserve better.
The (McAllen) Monitor. May 1, 2016.
On horse patrol: U.S. customs and Border Protection using mounted agents and wild mustangs to catch immigrants
On a wall in a musky, renovated barn in south Mission, just a few miles north of the Rio Grande, hang 40 well-worn leather horse saddles. Each saddle and blanket belongs to a different U.S. Border Patrol agent assigned to the Rio Grande Valley Sector Horse Patrol unit — a unique special forces team that each night pits majestic former wild American mustangs against immigrants trying to cross illegally into South Texas.
During the day, these 36 mustangs and three former race horses, lie in wait for their human partner agents, resting under renovated metal canopy stalls, complete with fresh running water, eating hay twice a day.
Come late afternoon, however, most will be saddled up by agents who will ride them through prickly brush, mesquite trees, near alligator-laden water inlets and on dirt trails around these borderlands with Mexico in search of human traffickers and those they try to illegally smuggle into the United States.
It's a rough post that leaves agents looking ruddy-faced, dusty and physically tired after a daily 10-hour shift, which can include up to eight hours of riding. It requires tremendous equestrian skills, physical stamina and a great love of the outdoors and these animals.
Sometimes agents will go on all-out chases for three miles at a time, Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Jeff Wiggins told us on a recent tour.
The wild mustangs — which were caught by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and actually trained by federal prisoners via a federal horse adoption program — can handle this type of exertion. They can trot for hours without food or water. They virtually do not tire or need rest. They are incredibly quiet, ever alert, always ready to run and they have impeccable night vision and hearing that helps agents locate trespassers.
By contrast, the quarter horses — which were seized with a shipment of illegal drugs at the Falfurrias checkpoint — are far more delicate and require frequent stops and much more nurturing. It's clear they aren't made for this rough and tumble environment.
And that is what makes this mustang horse unit of the RGV Sector such a fascinating and smart use of federal resources. It's a holistic approach to patrolling the U.S./Mexico border that invokes nature and utilizes multiple federal agencies working in concert with one another to help stop those who break our nation's immigration laws.
It's also a throwback to the early 1900s when "mounted inspectors" of the U.S. Immigration Service — the precursor agency to today's U.S. Customs and Border Protection — patrolled the U.S. border on horseback going as far back as 1904. Headquartered in El Paso, they mostly were used to ferret out illegal Chinese immigrants. With the advent and availability of motor vehicles, however, the horse units were gradually phased out and replaced with high technology over the years. But today, these steeds are proving that a return to basics makes good old fashioned sense on our nation's Southwest border.
Since it began four years ago in the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley Sector, this specialty unit has proven itself to be highly effective and remarkably self-sufficient. It's one that many agents request to join, but only about three dozen have proven to have the needed equestrian skills and stamina.
Mounted RGV Border Patrol agents have made hundreds of apprehensions, arrested human traffickers and stopped narcotics and contraband from entering into South Texas — mostly because the horses take them to remote places in the brush that other agents cannot access in cars or on foot.
"We're a force multiplier," said Wiggins who supervises mounted agents in the Rio Grande City area.
It's also a humbling post for them, as agents in their recognizable green jeans also take turns cleaning the stalls, feeding and watering the animals and brushing down the horses each day. They even recycle the collected manure for use by a local farmer.
This select team is a unique yet integral part of the RGV Sector. Mounted agents work nightly in concert with other Border Patrol agents to patrol over 320 river miles, 250 coastal miles and 19 counties equating to over 17,000 square miles via nine stations and two checkpoints in South Texas from Brownsville west to McAllen.
In a 2015 financial plan report by Customs and Border Protection to the Senate, the agency called its horse patrol units among "frontline staffing increases" that are "critical investments capable of improving the way CBP does business . (which) increase intelligence capabilities across CBP to better inform targeting and counter-network operations in order to more effectively deploy existing resources."
Funding was increased by $499,000 for the agency's horse units via the FY2014 DHS Appropriations Act, which added $256 million overall for two years for the hiring, training, and equipping of 2,000 new CBP officers at ports of entry.
The fact that these horses perform so well with Border Patrol agents is nothing short of remarkable, especially since many of these animals prior to a year ago roamed free in the wilds of the West and had never encountered humans, much less had ever been ridden.
The Bureau of Land Management captures and adopts out these majestic beasts via the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which authorizes the BLM to remove excess wild horses and burros from overpopulated U.S. ranges to help sustain the health and productivity of the public lands.
This also helps the health of the horses, Dean Bolstad, BLM division chief for the Wild Horse and Burros Program, told us in a recent phone interview from his Washington, D.C. office.
"Some ranges are overpopulated by as much as ten times and it's not healthy for the land to have too many grazing animals," Boldstad said. "It's not good for their health, as well."
Currently, the BLM has 47,000 horses in captivity maintained in pastures and corrals throughout the United States. "And that's at huge expense to our budget," Boldstad said. In fiscal year 2015, the BLM spent $49 million to care for these animals. What they want, he said, is to adopt out more of these horses as service animals, to the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies and municipalities.
"Wild horses and burros are very serviceable animals," said Boldstad, who has personally adopted and trained several of the animals.
The BLM also has asked Congress to amend the 1971 law to allow the agency to adopt the horses directly to another government agency. The law currently mandates that the horses be adopted by "a person," not an entity such as CBP, which makes the training and transfer of these animals cumbersome and lengthy, Boldstad told us.
We invite congressional leaders to come to South Texas and witness how these animals can be trained and become wonderful working and cost-effective partners. And we encourage Congress to amend the law so that more of these mustangs can be adopted and more of these horse patrols can be increased and operated throughout the United States by various law enforcement agencies, not only here on the border.
The horses cost only $125 to adopt, but it's the feeding, housing and caring for the animals that bring the most expense. Discounts are given for government agencies and trained horses are available. These horses cost more, up to $500 per unit, and utilize inmates to train or "break" the animals via the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP).
WHIP is a cooperative agreement between BLM and various corrections departments, such as the Colorado Department of Corrections. Inmates feed and care for the wild horses and burros at five facilities in the country, the largest being in Canon City, Colo.
All 36 of the mustangs in the RGV Horse Patrol sector came from prison training programs in Colorado and Kansas, Wiggins said, where they were given a first or "rough break" and then given extensive additional training by Border Patrol agents.
When they arrive, agents say the mustangs look like "bears" with wooly coats that were needed in their former homelands of Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and Colorado. But after a few weeks in hot, humid South Texas, they shed their excessive coats and sport short and sheen stubble as they adapt to their new environment.
They are given names, like "Muneco," ''Nacho," ''Tank," ''Rio," ''Moose," ''Bones," ''Grizzly," and "Jack." And each are put through at least 30 days of additional training, said Border Patrol Agent Jose Tello, who trains the new horses and ensures all agent riders are proficient and injury-free.
The horses are all geldings and range from three to nine-years-old. The average horse is 900 pounds, some are up to 1,200 pounds. Taking control of animals of this size that used to live in the wild is no easy task.
"They still need a lot of work. We go and pick them out and bring them here and we have our guys come out here and work them really hard to where they are really an efficient horse and a working horse, not anything fancy for shows or anything, but they're a good working horse," Wiggins said during a shift with The Monitor and his men in the field last month.
Training these horses includes getting them used to unknown foreign objects, like abandoned black rubber rafts and other trash frequently found near the Rio Grande that is left by immigrants who cross illegally. And while they are wonderfully sure-footed around snakes, alligators and caliche rock, a floating plastic bag can spook them and make them buck — something they must be trained not to do.
They also must learn to carry two riders, in case one horse is injured. This was demonstrated to us as we rode along the banks of the Rio Grande to a spot called Harper's Palapa, which overlooks the Mexican shore, and is a clearing before a dense section of brush where immigrants often traverse. With one rider and 100 pounds of gear, the horses can be toting 280 pounds on their backs; add to that another agent and their strength and stamina is a sight to behold.
Furthermore, they are extremely smart animals. Wiggins told us how mounted agents, for example, will be held up under a tree waiting for illegal immigrants to cross a path on a night patrol. Once one does, the horses will turn and look at the agents as if they've missed their cue. "They look at us as if to say: 'Don't you know what to do? Why aren't you getting him?'" Wiggins said. "But what we're typically going after are the traffickers, those who bring in groups of people, so we wait until the group has passed, radio that into other agents to intercept and then we go after the trafficker who usually doubles back."
With an almost ferocious courage, these horses will plunge headfirst into thorny brush and will keep running and chasing as long as they are told to, Wiggins said. Their night vision also enables them to spot trespassers better than any man-made gear, they said. And their hearing is amazing. "All we do is watch their ears. They tell us what to look for," Wiggins said.
Indeed, sitting atop one of these majestic beasts is not for the faint of heart. They are tough animals that demand respect, otherwise they will take control and do whatever they want. They even pick on one another, as Tello showed a section of hair on the mane of one horse that was bitten off by another when he "got too close."
But they are dedicated pack animals who have each other's back in the field. And they are uniquely ideal for this line of work and have proven themselves to be major contributors to the Border Patrol and assist agents in their missions.
Wiggins said alone the horse patrol is not capable of making big arrests of groups, but these riders are able to chase down runners and traffickers and go where SUVs and others on foot might not be able to go. "When you come upon people on a horse, they give up," he said.
At age 53, Wiggins is the oldest member of the horse patrol and he says he absolutely loves his job. He grew up on ranches in East Texas riding horses and "rodeoed" his way up to college. He had not ridden much until four years ago when the Border Patrol announced it was opening this special Horse Patrol sector here. He immediately signed up, got certified and says he relishes his nightly rides with fellow agents and all they have accomplished.
On a typical night, he maintains constant radio contact with agents stationed nearby, some on foot, in cars and air support, such as in helicopters and operating Aerostat units. Once immigrants are spotted, the agents disperse in different directions and capacities, with the horse patrol usually delegated to some of the most remote and hard-to-reach areas.
Since 2014, when an influx of women and unaccompanied children began flooding the South Texas border, agents have needed all the help they can get. In fiscal 2016, there were 14,336 apprehensions made by the RGV Sector out of 21,469 apprehensions on the entire U.S. Southwest border.
Although specific numbers of arrests by the horse patrol unit cannot be given because it is considered "operations sensitive," according to a Border Patrol spokeswoman, there is no doubt in conversations with Border Patrol officials that the horse patrol sector is a tremendous asset and we believe it should be expanded and further utilized.
More mustangs should be adopted through the BLM and brought here and trained and more mounted agents recruited.
For this is the antithesis of erecting a border wall: This uses living, breathing beings in their natural setting to find those who are trespassing our borders. And it does so effectively and efficiently.
"We're not going to be able to de-escalate some of the political rhetoric until we give the rest of America the sense that we are bringing more order, so that people are not afraid and not insecure," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said during a March 29 visit to the Rio Grande Valley, which included a tour of the Rio Grande, where these mounted agents patrol.
"What we need is a virtual border and the Border Patrol tells me that we need some tactical infrastructure. . It's more than just physical obstacles. It's people. It's boots on the ground and it's the technology."
We believe it's also hooves on the ground helping to keep order as well.
Waco Tribune-Herald. May 3, 2016.
Texas school districts that refuse to educate immigrant kids undermine our nation's future
One of the great successes of America and the envy of many allies in Europe is our collective ability to effectively assimilate immigrants, legal and otherwise. Sure, sometimes the transformation takes a generation or two to click, and, yes, xenophobia is a problem, but the overall success has made our culture richer, our people more appreciative of our founding values and our nation more of an example of how to blend differences into vigor and strength.
Which is why the findings of a year-long project by Georgetown University Law Center researchers are so damning, particularly revelations that some schools in Texas are declining to enroll the children of immigrant parents — a violation of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision that slapped down what was then a Democratic-run Texas Legislature that ordered school districts to refuse the enrollment of students not legally in this country.
The Supreme Court majority correctly cited the almighty 14th Amendment as legal grounds to ensure equal protection of such children, who, after all, shouldn't be held liable if they were brought here illegally by parents. More importantly, the justices noted that a consequence of such actions, if allowed to stand, would be "creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare and crime."
Indeed, if Republicans and Democrats ever do get around to reaching compromise on immigration — possibly during the next president's administration, judging from comments by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan — then refusing to educate immigrant children now could prove disastrous, especially if immigration reform allows youths legal status if not outright citizenship.
"To be sure, like all persons who have entered the United States unlawfully, these children are subject to deportation," the late Justice William Brennan wrote in 1982. "But there is no assurance that a child subject to deportation will ever be deported. An illegal entrant might be granted federal permission to continue to reside in this country or even to become a citizen."
Even Republicans such as former Texas Gov. Rick Perry have wisely noted the importance of ensuring that children of immigrant origins be afforded educations. If these children do become legal residents or even citizens one day, we best ensure they're taxpaying Americans who contribute to the betterment of us all.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. May 3, 2016.
Reboot the Railroad Commission
The state Sunset Advisory Commission staff is taking another swing at improving efficiency and transparency at the agency that regulates the Texas oil and gas industry, and that includes renewing a plea that the agency stop hiding behind a name that "misleads the public."
The Railroad Commission of Texas has nothing at all to do with railroads — and hasn't for more than a decade.
In recommendations published Friday, the Sunset staff said for the third time since 2011 that the name should be changed to better reflect what the agency really does. The suggestion: Texas Energy Resources Commission.
What could be more fundamental to transparency in government than a name that is not misleading?
The need to change this one has long been recognized (in 2011, the Sunset staff recommended changing it to Texas Oil and Gas Commission), but the Legislature can't seem to complete the effort.
In fact, we're lucky that a change is even back on the table. Three days before the 2015 legislative session was set to end, a bill surfaced that would postpone the Railroad Commission's scheduled 2017 Sunset review until 2023.
Only deft maneuvers in the House led by Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, kept the 2017 review process on track.
The Sunset Advisory Commission analyzes each state agency every 12 years to recommend operating improvements. The Sunset review can even result in an agency being discontinued.
Besides the name change, the latest Railroad Commission review says regulation of the oil and gas industry needs more teeth and better record-keeping.
It says the commission "falls short of providing incentive for operators to comply (with regulations) without first having to be told by the commission's limited field staff."
Oil and gas operators are required to post financial guarantees, called bonds, to help cover the cost of plugging wells and cleaning up drilling sites, but the current requirement covers less than 16 percent of that cost. Higher bonds should be required.
The commission needs additional statutory authority to ensure pipeline safety.
Finally, the Sunset report says the commission should transfer regulatory authority over gas utilities to the Public Utility Commission, which has more experience and expertise with setting utility rates.
Industry lobbying and objections from elected commissioners killed Railroad Commission sunset legislation in 2011 and 2013.
This time, lawmakers should get it done.
San Antonio Express-News. May 1, 2016.
Yes, focus on communication
The sight of flashing red lights in a rearview mirror is enough to cause panic for most drivers even if the stop is for a minor violation such as a broken taillight.
For individuals diagnosed with medical conditions that can affect verbal communication, a traffic stop can present bigger problems.
We applaud the Texas Department of Public Safety's plans to provide its troopers with training so they can interact more effectively with motorists who may have communication impairments.
The initiative is a joint effort of DPS, the Texas Governor's Committee on People with Disabilities and Asperger's101, a nonprofit advocating for individuals living with high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome.
Situations can quickly escalate and become uncomfortable for both parties when someone does not respond to a law enforcement officer in an expected manner. Failure to look someone in the eye or respond quickly enough can be misinterpreted.
The state agency's decision to expand who is eligible to list a communication impediment on the back of a driver's license or state-issued identification card is a smart move. It will also go a long way toward improving communication between state law enforcement officers and the motoring public.
The driver's license notation of a communication impediment is not mandatory. Until now it has been almost exclusively for the hearing impaired, but it is now an option for individuals with other medical conditions such as autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome or stuttering.
The training program is worth replicating at the local level.