AUSTIN, Texas — Dozens of protesters marched through the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, demanding expansion of the Medicaid program, but Democrats said political pressure from the governor was preventing the Legislature from considering the measure.
Chanting, "We need health care, we can't wait," members of the Texas Organizing Project marched around the Capitol's rotunda holding photos of key lawmakers with the word "FAILED" stamped on them. The demonstrators protested outside Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's office, singling him out for his vehement opposition to expanding Medicaid, a key provision of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
More than 24 percent of Texans do not have health insurance, the highest rate in the country. Texas Medicaid provides coverage to only a few childless adults so many poor adults depend on charity care provided in hospital emergency rooms. The high cost of those services is passed on through local taxes and included in private health insurance premiums.
Medicaid is a federal-state partnership, with two-thirds of the funding coming from Washington and a requirement to follow federal regulations. Supporters want to include up to 1.5 million new people in Medicaid to provide them with more consistent and affordable health care.
Texas could provide more than 1 million people with health care and better reimburse doctors if it spent $18 billion in state money over the next 10 years, earning $100 billion in federal matching funds.
But Gov. Rick Perry has called Medicaid a broken system and has asked federal authorities to give Texas the money with no strings attached, something known as a block grant.
"It would be irresponsible to add more Texans and dump more taxpayer dollars into an unsustainable system," said Lucy Nashed, Perry's spokeswoman.
A coalition of senior Republicans and Democrats had pushed for a bill that would outline the parameters under which Texas might accept Medicaid expansion, an important tool for the commissioner of health and human services to negotiate an agreement with federal authorities. But that compromise measure was left off the final slate of House bills up for debate on Thursday, effectively killing it.
The only hope to include those instructions now rests with a conference committee hammering out a final state budget. Conference committee members could add a non-binding rider in the bill calling for a block grant to cover the working poor included in an expansion of Medicaid while maintaining the current system for those already in the program. But Perry and conservative Republicans oppose any mention of Medicaid expansion in legislation this year.
"The governor, I believe, has had a chilling effect on support for health care expansion based on his requirement ... for a block grant," said Rep. Garnett Coleman, D-Houston. "We're still calling on the governor to take away his opposition."
Georgia McKnight was one of the protesters Wednesday, yelling, "Time is up, act now." She does not have health insurance, but she would be covered by expanded Medicaid.
"We're here to support the 1.5 million people in Texas that need health care expansion," she said. "I want to help a lot of working families."