Texas House budget includes anti-gay measure, leaves out needed funds for AIDS drug program

Rep. Garnet Coleman

The Texas House approved a budget Sunday that includes massive cuts to public education, Medicaid and, well, just about everything else. The House budget, which now goes to the Senate, would trim $23 billion from current state and federal spending over the next two years. Democrats in the House, who are outnumbered 2-to-1, say the cuts will have disastrous effects on key services.

As we noted the other day, the House budget includes an amendment that would require public colleges and universities in Texas with LGBT resource centers to spend an equal amount, dollar for dollar, on centers promoting “traditional and family values.” The amdendment from Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, passed by a margin of 110-24.

The House budget does not include any additional money for the Texas HIV Medication Program, which will need $19.2 million more over the next two years to meet increased demand. The HIV Medication Program provides life-sustaining medication to 14,000 low-income people with HIV/AIDS. Last week, a Senate budget panel recommended providing the additional money. The Senate’s version of the budget is expected to include $10 billion more than the House, and the two measures will then have to be reconciled. As one lawmaker put it, “Thank God for the Senate.”

After the jump is the reaction to the budget of Democratic State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who called the budget “shameful.” Incidentally, Coleman proposed an amendment to the budget that would have required school districts to report incidents of harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The amendment failed by a vote of 97-49.

Writes Coleman of the final House budget: “I voted ‘no’ on this bill because in my 20 years as a state legislator, I’ve never seen a budget so devastating to children and seniors. All we’ve done today is move around the deck chairs as the Titanic sinks.”

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Texas Senate panel votes to restore funding for HIV/AIDS drug program

Petty Officer 2nd Class Derek Morado

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. The Texas Senate Finance Committee agreed Thursday to provide an additional $19.2 million that’s needed to deliver life-sustaining medication to low-income people with HIV/AIDS over the next two years. HIV/AIDS advocacy groups issued an action alert Wednesday asking people to call members of the Finance Committee and urge them to restore the funding, which had been recommended for cuts by a subcommittee. The Texas HIV Medication Program currently serves 14,000 people but the number is expected to increase by 3,000 over the next two years. Without the additional funds, the program could be forced to turn people away.

2. A Colorado House committee killed a civil unions bill on a 6-5 party line vote Thursday, after hours of emotional testimony from both sides. Those who testified in favor of the bill included both the partner and the twin sister of gay Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the bill’s House sponsor. But it wasn’t enough to convince any of the six Republicans on the committee to vote in favor of the measure, which had already cleared the Senate. “What makes me saddest,” Ferrandino said, “is there were people on that committee who were, I think, supportive in their hearts but weren’t willing to stand up against the leadership and the far-right fringe of their party.” He added: “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”

3. A gay sailor won’t be discharged from the Navy under “don’t ask don’t tell” after an administrative separation board voted 3-0 Thursday to retain him. Petty Officer 2nd Class Derek Morado came under investigation in 2009 after someone in his unit reported a photo on his MySpace page of him kissing another man. DADT, of course, was repealed by Congress in December of last year, but Morado’s case still went forward because the policy remains in effect pending certification of repeal by the president, the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs chairman — followed by a 60-day waiting period. “It really begins to make you question why we’re wasting the money on a hearing like this and also why we’re allowing the military to bully him,” said Director Robin McGehee of GetEQUAL, which assisted Morado.

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: HIV/AIDS progam not a priority for Texas Senate panel; Target sues gay group

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. Things aren’t looking good for the Texas program that provides life-sustaining drugs to 14,000 low-income people with HIV/AIDS. The Texas HIV Medication Program, which needs an additional $19.2 million from the Legislature over the next two years, was not among the top priorities listed by a Senate budget panel that made its recommendations Thursday. If the Legislature doesn’t provide the money, the program will have to cut off enrollment or otherwise restrict access. “We’re basically making a decision regarding who lives and who dies,” said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Houston, who voted against the panel’s recommendations.

2. Servicemembers United reports that 261 people service members were discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010. “While this latest official discharge number represents an all-time annual low, it is still unusually high considering that the Secretary of Defense issued a directive half-way through the fiscal year to make it much harder for military units to discharge troops under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” said Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United. “Despite this law clearly being on its deathbed at the time, 261 more careers were terminated and 261 more lives were abruptly turned upside down because this policy.”

3. Target is suing an LGBT group in San Diego to stop it from gathering petitions in support of marriage equality outside eight of the retailer’s stores. Target says the group, Canvass for a Cause, is bothering customers, but the group says the company has anti-gay motives. Arguments in the case are set to begin today.

—  John Wright

HIV meds program on state’s chopping block

Ending assistance could cost communities millions in added ER care and hospitalization, advocates say

DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Some of the more extreme budget cutters would like to eliminate the program that helps people without insurance receive life-sustaining medications, as the Texas Legislature struggles to pass a balanced budget.

“That would be called legalized murder,” said Don Maison, president and CEO of AIDS Services Dallas.

Among the more likely proposals being floated in Austin is to add only 400 to 500 people to the Texas HIV Medication Program (THMP) over the next two budget cycles, which runs four years.

Bret Camp

Local HIV healthcare providers said the proposed number is low compared to the number who will need the program.

Texas is a direct purchase state, according to Bret Camp, associate executive director of health and medical services for the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic at Resource Center Dallas. Camp explained that the state buys HIV medications and distributes them through a network of about 400 pharmacies throughout the state.

To qualify for THMP, a client must be diagnosed HIV-positive, be a Texas resident, be uninsured or under-insured for drug coverage, have income below 200 percent of the poverty level, and not receive Medicare.

Medicare recipients get their medication through the State Pharmacy Assistance Program.

In 1996, 5,100 people in Texas received their medication through THMP. Last year, the estimated number was 14,000.

Camp said he is concerned that increasing the number of eligible people over the next four years by just 400 would leave too many without the medications they need.

Camp said he expects the number of people needing assistance to increase significantly.

“The state is being responsible and promoting HIV testing,” he said. “The more testing, the more cases we’re likely to see.”

Just how much the state is spending on providing drugs for about 14,000 Texans with HIV is not known. Camp said that the state negotiates a price with the drug companies but does not publish the negotiated price.

“Nobody really knows what the price is,” Camp said.

Randall Ellis is the senior director of government relations for Legacy Community Health Services in Houston, formerly known as Montrose Clinic. He said that Texas probably pays in the range of $6,000 per year for someone in the program.

Individuals who have to purchase the drugs themselves or have insurance cover part of the price would pay closer to $24,000 or more.

Camp said that eliminating the program would save little when compared to the overall budget shortfall. But he said that the cost of caring for people who would have to make multiple emergency room visits and have extended hospital stays would be much higher than keeping them healthy in the first place.

Ellis said another problem is that the oversight committee, made up of stakeholders from around the state, sunsetted last fall. To reinstate the committee, the commissioner of Health and Human Services would simply have to repost the rules.

The committee made recommendations to the health department such as what drugs should be included in the program and what the eligibility requirements should be.

The commissioner, Ellis said, usually followed the committee’s recommendations. But the commissioner didn’t always want that input, he said.

“They want our input when it looks good to have community input,” Ellis said. “But when we ask tough questions, they’d rather not have us.”

Ellis does not expect all funding for THMP to be cut. He said that the state receives some funding through the federal AIDS Drug Assistance Program.

Camp said other states have thousands of people on waiting lists for ADAP programs.

“Florida is sorry right now,” he said. “They have dis-enrolled people.”

Florida has more than 3,000 waiting for medication. Unless those people find another way to get their medication, most will become sick, Ellis said, adding that if they are left untreated, those people will die.

Camp said that after recent hearings in the Senate Finance Committee, senators “seemed to leave with questions” that were on a level he hadn’t heard since early in the AIDS crisis.

On Tuesday, Feb. 15, the Texas HIV-AIDS Coalition is sponsoring Advocacy Day at the Capitol in Austin. A Dallas contingency will join groups from Houston, San Antonio and other cities as far as El Paso to talk to legislators about the need to fund the program.

For more information or to register for Advocacy Day, go TexasHIV.org.

—  John Wright

Rep. Coleman: Gov. Perry’s re-election would put lives of thousands of Texans with HIV in danger

Rep. Garnet Coleman

The Dallas Morning News reports today that the Texas HIV Medication Program, which supplies life-saving medication to people with HIV/AIDS who can’t afford it, will run out of money in the next two years.

You see, thanks to our fiscally conservative GOP leadership of the last decade, the state is facing a massive budget shortfall — of up to $21 billion — and state agencies are being asked to cut their budgets by 10 percent. But in order to sustain the HIV medication program, which helps about 13,700 people a year, the state will need to increase its contribution by about 50 percent — or more than $10 million.

According to Democratic State Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, a longtime LGBT ally, the chances aren’t good that our current leaders would be willing to fund the program as needed. Here’s what Coleman told The DMN:

“If [Rick] Perry’s still governor and there’s essentially the same team, then it could be very hard, especially if they’re emboldened by election results, instead of following what is humane for people,” Coleman said.

One of the obvious reasons behind Coleman’s concerns, which isn’t mentioned in the story, is that Perry and many other Republicans still view HIV/AIDS as a gay issue, and they believe homosexuality is immoral. Perry has himself said that if gays aren’t happy about the way they’re treated in Texas, they should move to another state. And after all, it’s right there in the state GOP platform: “We believe that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases.”

—  John Wright