Voices: My ACA experience

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Devin Williams, a chiropractor and nurse practitioner at the Clinical Educational Center at University Medical Center Brackenridge, screen Juventina Martinez for knee pain in March. (Tamir Kalifa/American-Statesman)

Few pieces of legislation in recent years have generated as much intense national debate in recent memory as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known to many Americans as Obamacare.

An overhaul of the U.S. health care system, it was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010. Republicans have long vowed to repeal and replace the law, and on March 6 GOP lawmakers unveiled a House bill called the American Health Care Act, which would change how health care is financed for people who do not have insurance coverage through their work and eliminate the mandate requiring most Americans to have health insurance.

We asked Viewpoints readers to share their ACA experience with us. The following are some of their letters and photos:

ACA Howard Porter
Howard Porter (Contributed)

In 2013, I was in good health but my doctor had me on four meds for cholesterol and high blood pressure. No big deal — in fact, three of these were on the $4 list at Wal-Mart Pharmacy. So, then I decided to buy an individual health insurance policy. Aetna, Blue Cross and other insurers declined to cover me for any price because of the number of meds I took to stay healthy. When the Affordable Care Act became effective in 2014, I had a choice of insurers through the health insurance exchange. So even though I didn’t qualify for subsidy, the ACA made it possible for me to finally buy health insurance because insurers are no longer permitted to cherry pick customers by excluding pre-existing conditions. — Howard Porter, Austin

EDITORIAL: GOP health care plan goes up in smoke; now fix Obamacare

ACA Tiffany Gillman
Tiffany Gilman (Contributed)

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 31 in 2015. With no family history, it was a terrible surprise nine months before my wedding. But I was lucky that the cancer had not spread, although my oncologist still recommended surgery, chemo and radiation. Again, I was lucky — I had health insurance, which picked up the $280,000 tab for my treatments. I didn’t need Obamacare for myself, but I cannot imagine what it would have been like to receive this diagnosis without insurance. It would have destroyed my dreams for the future. I know that before the ACA, this happened to Americans constantly. Repealing Obamacare will directly impact me — specifically, repealing the pre-existing conditions clause. Even though I no longer have cancer, I will forever be considered either uninsurable or gouged for health insurance without this provision. It isn’t my fault I got cancer, but if Obamacare is repealed, I will keep paying for it. — Tiffany Gilman, Austin

Never mind the lines: “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” or “If you like your policy, you can keep your policy.” At this time of the year, the biggest issue with the ACA really hits home. This is tax time; I am again preparing to include my 1095-C form with my return — you know, that nagging little mandatory document that must be included to prove to the IRS that you had ACA-approved coverage for the year or you get to pay a big, fat penalty. I really get tired of seeing all the numbers that are insured under the ACA. Of course there are big numbers of insured Americans; they have no choice. Instead of the previous lies, the statement should have been: “You will purchase a policy that is approved by the ACA with whatever doctors they provide, or face a stiff penalty.” — Jeff Popnoe, Round Rock

032216 ACA Robin Durr
Robin Durr and her late husband, Ken (Contributed)

For about a year, due to pre-existing conditions, my husband, Ken, received his health insurance through the Texas High Risk Pool. When the Affordable Care Act debuted, he was glad to be able to choose a policy. Subsequently, due to a fall at home that resulted in a broken hip, he had surgery and was working on his rehabilitation in the hospital when we received devastating news: Although he had no outward symptoms, Ken had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. As we began to plan for his care, one of his doctors said, “I don’t know what you think of Obamacare, but be thankful that because of it. You are not looking at a cap on care.” Shockingly, Ken passed away only 12 days after the diagnosis. In the midst of such grief, I was very thankful for the coverage he had. There was no “Mickey Mouse” with the insurance company — as often seemed to happen before the ACA. I knew exactly what my financial responsibility was and there were no surprises. In a time of such sadness, with my brain feeling as if I was in a fog, Obamacare is something I will always be grateful for. — Robin Durr, Austin

To help pay for ACA, the cost for Medicare B went up. In 2013, I paid $98 per month for Medicare B. In 2014, it went up to $140 per month. In 2015, it went up to $280 per month, so I dropped Medicare B. —  Clyde Claggett, Georgetown

ACA Faith Sams
Faith Sams, husband Andy and daughter Ru (Contributed)

My husband, Andy, and I own a small business together. I was able to make the decision to join him and leave behind the 9-to-5 world the year the ACA was rolled out. Being able to purchase reasonably priced health insurance that would allow us to have a baby was the boost we needed to make that move confidently. As the gig economy and self-employment gains a greater share of the overall economy, it’s vital to have a health insurance marketplace that is inclusive to a broad spectrum of people — especially those who have to be able to provide for themselves and their families. I suspect that the health insurance marketplace and the expansion of the gig and sharing economy and reduced unemployment are all interconnected. — Faith Sams, Austin

ACA Pam Hammond
Pam Hammonds and husband Jeff (Contributed)

In 2014, my husband, Jeff, and I had insurance with Blue Cross Blue Shield with a monthly premium of $941.43. We didn’t qualify for an ACA subsidy. That policy had a $6,000 deductible per person. In November of that year, I had to have carpal tunnel surgery on both hands. In December, my husband had to have knee surgery. In summary, in 2014, we paid $23,297.16 in out-of-pocket expenses — monthly premiums plus deductibles — before Blue Cross Blue Shield ever paid a penny on our behalf. Not to mention, since the knee surgery was performed at the end of December and his physical therapy didn’t start until January, our deductible started over and we immediately started having out-of- pocket expenses again. Lastly, our monthly premium of $941.43 has now gone up to $1,457.15 starting this January. — Pam Hammonds, Burnet

ACA jeff brown
Jeff Brown (Contributed)

My story is simple: I’m 61-years-old with two serious pre-existing conditions. I’m self-employed. If anyone would insure me, it would not be “affordable.” I’ve relied on the ACA from its beginning — and it has literally been a life-saver. I also happen to know several Republicans within my age bracket who have pre-existing conditions and also avail themselves to the program. Once they looked beyond the popular misconceptions, myths and blatant lies about the ACA, they figured out that it works pretty well for those of us who are not yet eligible for Medicare. Yes, costs have gone up while the program has worked out its early flaws, but I’ve yet to see or hear about any real alternatives that won’t cut services and raise costs even more. My biggest fear is that a bunch of grand-standing congressmen who have their own insurance are going to take mine away, leaving me — and millions of others — at risk until I reach 65. — Jeff Brown, Austin

COMMENTARY: Why affordable insurance alone won’t keep Americans healthy.

Though my brother Alan Arms worked as a contractor for many years, none of his employers offered health insurance. In November 2013, he was coughing up blood and went to an internist who ordered him immediately to a hospital. There, he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and faced a bill over $50,000. In January 2014, the ACA went into effect — and despite his pre-existing condition, Alan was able to buy health insurance for around $550 a month. When he died in May 2014, the sole reason he left a small estate — and not a smoking crater of medical bills — was the ACA covered his pre-existing condition and paid most of his bills. Though initially he had problems finding a plan with a network that covered his doctors, eventually he found one. Had he died indigent, the hospitals and doctors would have been forced to eat the payments for his treatment. Because of the ACA, they were paid. — David Arms, Austin

ACA Carolyn Cohagan 2
Carolyn Cohagan, top center, with members of Girls With Pens (Contributed)

The ACA was life-changing for me. I am a 44-year-old published novelist and teacher. Before Obamacare, the only option I had for health insurance was through the Author’s Guild. An HMO plan was $1,200 a month; a PPO was $1,600 a month. I have had a pre-existing condition since I was 21” a blood-clotting disorder that rarely effects my life. I was elated when I could get a decent plan for less than $500 a month. I was able to start an Austin organization called Girls With Pens because I didn’t have to worry about getting health insurance through my job. Now all that could all be taken away. Do you want me teaching your children how to love writing, or do you want me serving coffee at Starbucks for the insurance? The ACA isn’t perfect, but each and every one of us deserves affordable health care, no matter our fitness, class or working status. — Carolyn Cohagan, Austin

032216 ACA Rick Koepcke
Rick Koepecke (Contributed)

In 2010, my wife lost her job and we lost our health insurance. I worked for a small hardware store, where the health insurance they offered would have cost me $450 a month with a $5,000 deductible. I was making $10 an hour, so that was not an option. Then, we were able to get insurance through the ACA. For about $100 a month, we were both covered with excellent medical benefits, which included prescription benefits, preventative care and doctor visits with a $10 co-pay. Later I found out I had high cholesterol and went on medication for that. Both of these conditions are under control now. Without health care, I may not have even known I was at risk for either a stroke or heart attack. Even when the cost of our insurance went up to about $120 a month, it was still very affordable. If the ACA is repealed, my health will be in danger. — Rick Koepcke, Austin

Obamacare isn’t affordable. The plan’s premiums are going up 25 to 116 percent nationwide this year. Health insurance companies are dropping the exchanges, which forces customers in 70 percent of the U.S. counties to buy insurance from one or two companies. Republicans promised to repeal and replace Obamacare and voted over 60 times to repeal part of the law. Congress began the process in January by passing the fiscal year 2017 “shell” budget resolution — S.Con.Res.3 — which instructed the committees about how to write the repeal law. The language has existed in a bill passed in 2015. They’ve not met their self-imposed deadline — and repeal timeline is slipping. Millions will be negatively impacted by these exchanges. We’re so close to making this last chance a reality. Contact your congressional members. Tell them we want a full repeal of ACA and to replace it with a new, workable health plan. No more excuses. — Wanda Whitney, Georgetown

I am concerned about efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. For many millions of Americans, this act is very far from being a disaster, as some have glibly claimed. In fact, for some of us, it has been a life-saver. Without Obamacare, I could never have afforded to pay for a costly heart-valve replacement that may have saved my life. What will those with pre-existing conditions do without the guarantees of health care eligibility promised in the Affordable Care Act? Caring for the least among us is part of who we are as Americans. If we smash affordable health care, we shatter the fragile bonds that preserve our sense of unity. — Charles Rand, Austin

ACA Abby Brody
Abby Brody and her late daughter, Hallie (Contributed)

As a 62-year-old breast cancer survivor who’s losing employer-based health insurance this year, I’m terrified that without Obamacare I may be forced to choose between bankruptcy and life-saving treatment. We’ve needed the Affordable Care Act before. Our 23-year-old daughter died of a rare illness 16 months ago. The ACA allowed her to stay on my husband’s employer-based insurance and not worry about lifetime expenditure caps. Were it not for the ACA, we would have been bankrupt in addition to losing our daughter Hallie. I can’t sleep at night wondering if I’ll have ACA insurance to treat my breast cancer. Or will we again face the prospect of bankruptcy? — Abby Brody, Georgetown

ACA Chrstine Eady
Christine Mann (Contributed)

First, do no harm. We learn this in medical school, carrying it with us throughout our careers. In the U.S., access to affordable health insurance is a necessity for obtaining the best possible care. Shouldn’t our elected representatives share in this goal? Unfortunately, our new administration is pressing forward with repealing the law that puts insurance in reach for most. A survey in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 85 percent of family practice doctors are against repeal of the ACA. The president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, Dr. John Meigs Jr., says “too much is at stake to make significant changes to ACA.” Every day, primary care physicians see the struggles our patience face because of lack of insurance. Why isn’t our government listening to us? I hope they will join us in doing no harm — and keep the ACA. — Christine Mann, Leander

I had really good health insurance through my employers. When I went to work for myself, I had to buy insurance on my own. Though it was expensive and not very good, I knew that if I let it lapse it would be even harder to get back into the system later — and that I would have the issue of a pre-existing condition. I found the cheapest policy I could find and hoped that I wouldn’t get sick. The ACA changed everything. For the last two years, I’ve had good, affordable coverage thanks to the government subsidy. My prescriptions are just $5 — and ACA covered a large percentage of my carpal tunnel surgeries. Without that subsidy, I could not have afforded a good enough policy to cover my health care needs. Without the marketplace, I would not have had so many choices for a plan that works well for me. — Rona Distenfeld, Austin

ACA Rob Sanford
Rob Sanford (Contributed)

I had my pancreas removed 16 years ago due to a rare form of pancreatic cancer. I work at home under contract and have no option for work-related coverage. When my work coverage was discontinued, I tried to get insurance to cover my needs for medication, an insulin pump and other supplies — but was told “no way” by numerous insurance companies. Once the ACA was introduced, I was finally able to get coverage that was somewhat expensive but went a long way toward keeping me alive. Many of us need it. — Rob Sanford, Fredericksburg

The debate over the merits of the Affordable Care Act highlights the highly partisan environment of our times. “Repeal and replace” has been the mantra of many Republicans elected to national office — President Trump included. However, the evidence is clear that our country’s rate of uninsured is at a historic low of nearly 9 percent. As someone who purchased insurance through the health insurance marketplace, of course I would like a more affordable monthly premium. I am hopeful that a Republican-controlled Congress can help deliver this. I am also hopeful that other pieces of Obamacare that aim to improve our nation’s health care will continue to be embraced, such as efforts to expand primary care medicine and efforts to improve quality of care. As an entering medical student, these pieces have inspired me to advocate for improving and embracing — rather than repealing and replacing — Obamacare. — Mark Smith, Austin

COMMENTARY: This is what happens when health insurance is a privilege.

My wife, Linda, is a beneficiary of Obamacare. Prior to its enactment, she was covered by the Texas High Risk Pool. Due to her pre-existing type 2 diabetes, she could not get coverage from standard insurance carriers. My wife was 62 when the law was enacted — too young for Medicare. Her premiums went down with Obamacare — not up — with no subsidies. The good news is her premiums will go down again next year when she gets on Medicare. The bottom line is that Obamacare is flawed because it didn’t go far enough. Everyone should be on Medicare — and we should find a way to pay for it. Though Americans pay more for health care than any other developed country, our quality of care is not any greater. Americans should ask our congressmen and senators why. — Randy and Linda Johnson, Georgetown

ACA lisa federico 2
Lisa Federico with husband John and daughter Elodie (Melissa Glynn)

In December 2013, I was newly pregnant and working long hours as a self-employed consultant at a global law firm. Our COBRA policy was set to expire. My husband, John, was the third employee in a dot-com that offered no benefits. As pregnancy was considered a pre-existing condition, agencies were well within their rights to deny us coverage regardless of our willingness or ability to pay premiums. Through the ACA exchange, we enrolled in a policy and suffered no gap in coverage. That summer, our daughter Elodie was born with a previously undetected, life-threatening birth defect called duodenal atresia. Without this coverage, we would have lost everything to save her life. The bills from her surgery and monthlong neonatal intensive care unit stay totaled upwards of $500,000. We were so fortunate to pay a small fraction, thanks to the ACA. I urge your readers to consider the many hard-working families like ours that rely on the ACA’s protections. — Lisa Federico, Austin

0323 ACA Nabours 2
John Henry Hayes Nabours, son of Michelle Beebe Nabours (Contributed)

My son was prenatally diagnosed with a congenital heart defect that would leave him with one functioning ventricle and require a series of surgeries over his lifetime — two of them in the first six months of life. Today, my son is a sweet and mischievous 18-month-old toddler, thanks to an incredible medical team. But we have a long road ahead of us, and access to a good health care policy is a top priority in my world. The ACA means my son will have medical coverage for the rest of his life and will not be punished because he has a pre-existing condition. It means he won’t face a cap on his coverage. The idea that lawmakers could repeal Obamacare without a ready replacement is terrifying to families like mine. I guess when you have free health care for life — like our congressional representatives do — the rest of us don’t matter. — Michelle Beebe Nabours, Manchaca

ACA Laurie Filipelli
Laura Filipelli (Contributed)

Today is my daughter’s eighth birthday. She was born not long after Obama’s first inauguration. Before I got pregnant, I’d left a teaching job in favor of working with an educational nonprofit, though it offered no health coverage. Wishing to have a child, I stayed on COBRA and paid a $600 monthly premium. Two miscarriages later, a pregnancy stuck. My insurance coverage did not. COBRA terminates after 18 months. Because my pregnancy was deemed a pre-existing condition, I had no other viable option. My daughter’s birth was a 24-hour ordeal that was made harder because I was uninsured. Though my husband and I gained a beautiful child, we watched a down payment for a first home disappear. Our daughter’s middle name is Hope. Our hope for uninsured expectant parents was realized, albeit imperfectly, with the ACA. By repealing it, Republican lawmakers dash dreams and health for countless families, leaving them financially at risk. — Laurie Filipelli, Austin

032216 ACA Carolyn Blake
Carolyn Blake (Contributed)

My family had been waiting for March 15 for five years. It was the day I donated my kidney to my mother — so that she can live her life free of a machine. I remember sitting in the clinic and my donor advocate asking me what my plan is if the ACA is repealed, explaining that a kidney donation will count as a “pre-existing condition.” Without the ACA, health insurers can refuse to cover me. I went through a litany of health tests to even be chosen as a donor and am told I will live an ordinary life after surgery. Now I could be denied coverage at age 26. What about when I want to start a family? What if something else goes wrong? This gift to my mother is now a financial liability. I want to be part of a society that encourages giving life, not one that punishes donors. — Carolyn Blake, Austin

More than 133 million Americans like me have pre-existing conditions. For the first time in America, people with pre-existing conditions cannot be denied health coverage or charged exorbitant rates. The ACA prohibits these things. Now Republicans in Congress want to repeal the ACA, including the individual-responsibility part of the law. I know this is a tough pill to swallow, but maintaining protections for people with pre-existing conditions without requiring individual responsibility would cost millions of us coverage and increase premiums for even more of us. Health care reform is personal. Millions of lives are affected. The ACA allows those of us with pre-existing conditions to live healthier and more-productive lives. It also allows us to change jobs without losing health insurance. As Republicans work to repeal the ACA, I implore them to also follow the physician’s oath to first do no harm. — Janie F. Galko, Austin

ACA David Butler
David Butler (Contributed)

With the government push to repeal and replace Obamacare, why not consider a simple solution? Principal criticisms of the ACA are inflexibility and high costs. Tenets of a “replacement” plan are flexible coverage alternatives and interstate insurance options. These objectives could be met by simply amending the existing system. Allow insurance companies to offer alternative plans in addition to the existing four ACA plans. A similar approach has worked in Medicare Part B, where “Advantage Plans” are offered in addition to original “Supplement Plans.” Let the public choose which plan is best for them. Allow access to individual state insurance exchanges from any state. This change would introduce competition and reduce costs. Why subject the nation to the Sturm und Drang of “repeal and replace” when it would be so simple to amend the existing system? An amendment would be a bipartisan, win-win solution — and it would be best for the public. The plan’s name is irrelevant. — David Butler, Georgetown

ACA Jo Rae Di Menno
Jo Rae Di Menno (Contributed)

I am in full support of the Affordable Care Act. I have been able to obtain health insurance since its inception. Prior to ACA, I was paying $587 per month for health care through Blue Cross Blue Shield High Risk. It was a terrible plan and offered nothing beneficial. It was the only insurance I could obtain due to benign thyroid nodules. When ACA started up, I was able to have health care without having to worry about any pre-existing conditions and high monthly premiums. I am currently utilizing Sendero Ideal Care through the ACA. I am very happy with my doctors and the care I receive. — Jo Rae Di Menno, Austin

ACA Herman Morris
Herman Morris (Contributed)

Just as Martin Niemoller once said, I now say: “First they came after Obamacare, and I did not speak out, because I was not on Obamacare. Then they came after Medicaid, and I did not speak out, because I was not on Medicaid. Then they came after Medicare — and there was no one left to speak for me.” I am an 89-year- old with serious and expensive medical problems. Now, I am scared to death that I will have no medical coverage in my final years as I try to stay alive with some comfort and dignity. — Herman I. Morris, Plano

WHOM TO CONTACT

The following lawmakers represent Central Texas:

U.S. senators

  • John Cornyn: 202-224-2934; 517 Hart Senate Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20510
  • Ted Cruz: 202-224-5922; Russell Senate Office Bldg 404, Washington, DC 20510

U.S. representatives

  • 10th District: Michael McCaul (R); 202-225-2401; 2001 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515
  • 17th District: Bill Flores (R); 202-225-6105; 2440 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515
  • 21st District: Lamar S. Smith (R); 202-225-4236; 2409 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515
  • 25th District: Roger Williams (R); 202-225-9896; 1323 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515
  • 27th District: Blake Farenthold (R); 202-225-7742; 1027 Longworth, Washington, DC 20515
  • 31st District: John Carter (R); 202-225-3864;2110 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515
  • 35th District: Lloyd Doggett (D); 202-225-4865; 2307 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515

Abbott’s Texas stomps Austin, local governments

Governor Greg Abbott speaks before signing his new book ‘Broken but Unbowed’ as he launches his book tour at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation. Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Welcome to Gov. Abbott’s Texas, where the state bullies local governments to bend to its will and strangles efforts of local people to govern themselves. That sounds surreal, but it is not a stretch if Abbott gets his way.

The Texas Tribune reported this week that Abbott is proposing a “rifle-shot” law to pre-empt regulations of cities and counties that run counter to the state’s interest. Such an approach would wreck the current democratic process in which the Legislature publicly debates local ordinances before either validating them or striking them down.

Here is what Abbott told the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank, during a Q&A session at the group’s meeting in Corpus Christi.

“As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to pre-empt local regulations, is a superior approach,” The Tribune reported.

Abbott added that such an approach, “makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you’re going to have the certainty to run your lives.”

Yes, Governor, democracy is messy, tedious and time-consuming. But that is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind in setting up a system to ensure that ideas are debated in the public square in front of the people so presumably the best ones would prevail.

A sweeping law aimed at diluting or eroding that process is antithetical to the Constitution.

Our democratic system was not intended to be “elegant,” or means of granting “notice to businesses and individuals” so as to provide certainty in their practices or lives, as the governor seems to believe. And the notion that elected lawmakers need some kind of break in doing the jobs we elected and pay them to do – pass laws – is misguided.

Aside from being imprudent, Abbott’s proposal is unnecessary as the limits of municipalities, such as the city of Austin, and all 254 Texas counties, are spelled out in the state’s constitution and legal principles, as Austin attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, notes.

“The Texas Constitution and statutes establish different legal principles regarding power of cities and counties,” Aleshire told me Wednesday.

“The principle for home-rule cities is that they have any power necessary for protection for the health, welfare, or safety of the city residents that is not prohibited by state law. The opposite is true for counties, which only have power that is granted to them by state law.”

In other words, home-rule cities, such as Austin, can legally ban plastic bags, require Uber and Lyft to fingerprint their drivers and regulate short-term rentals as those are areas in which the state has not established regulations, with the exception of some restrictions on plastic bag bans. So none of Austin’s local ordinances in such areas violate state regulations.

And if the state does extend its reach in those areas as some Republicans in the Legislature now are attempting to do, Austin’s ordinances would have to come into compliance with state law. The city could, however, decide to challenge state law in court. In either scenario, the current democratic system works in handling such issues.

As for Travis County, no doubt Abbott is madder than hell over new policies of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez to deny most requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain jail inmates for federal immigration checks before releasing them.

I say that because counties have so little authority in general and already are limited to doing what the state prescribes. So Abbott’s proposal with regard to counties makes no sense. That is especially true since state lawmakers now are considering a law to require Texas sheriffs to fully comply with all ICE detainers or fine them civilly or criminally if they don’t.

As it now stands, Hernandez is only honoring ICE requests when the inmate is charged with one of four crimes: capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous human smuggling.

Again, our current legislative process – including debate and public meetings – is handling the local initiative that has Abbott all riled up. Austin and Travis County leaders might not agree with the Legislature’s response to Hernandez’s ICE policy, but even Hernandez has said she would follow state law under such circumstances, meaning she would honor ICE detainers if that is the law.

As a former state supreme court justice and attorney general for Texas, Abbott should know that upheaval, disruption and disagreement are part of the formula for a healthy democracy. And can you even imagine the reaction of Abbott, who worships at the altar of states’ rights, if the federal government struck that posture with Texas?

And let’s face it, some of the most autocratic countries in the world are the ones with the most certainty and predictability for their people, government and businesses. Like North Korea.

Why the border wall fences us in

A section of the border fence with a gate, bounded by smaller chain-link fence in Runn, Texas. The patchwork border fence along the Texas-Mexico border has created a nebulous and bizarre third space between countries.   Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

From atop a dusty bluff on the U.S. Mexico border in deep South Texas, the mighty Rio Grande commands the panoramic vista below. Its waters a muted hue of green, the river courses wildly in every direction, zig-zagging here, straightening out there for about a mile due south before making an impossible hairpin turn due north, then zig-zagging again. With its bedeviling twists and turns, the Rio Grande is God’s work or Nature’s work, or both.

This is the border.

The border fence, however, is far from the river’s edge in many places, up to a mile in some spots, leaving many Texans and their way of life caught in something of a No Man’s Land, as reporter Jeremy Schwartz noted in last Sunday’s American-Statesman.

In communities up and down the Rio Grande Valley, people’s homes, their farmlands, nature trails and wildlife sanctuaries, cemeteries and soccer fields are caught in the space between. Intended to keep people out, the fence instead cuts off sizable pieces of Texas from the people who live there. Even some homeowners have been cut off from their own land.

Then there’s the case of Greg Garcia. To get to his classes at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, Garcia regularly passes through an opening in the 18-foot-high border fence. To get home, he drives south past the fence, where U.S. Border Patrol agents let him through.

Large numbers of people make similar every-day adjustments to get to school, to their jobs and to their homes. It’s an alternative universe not like the way of life people along the border knew for generations before, a carefree existence that allowed children to frolic in the river’s cool waters on scorching summer days.

Though I’ve lived in Austin most of my adult life, I grew up in the Valley and still consider myself a son of the border. When I was a kid, crossing the border meant a Sunday afternoon outing with your parents, strolling the plaza, getting your shoes shined, stocking up on cookies and candies and enjoying a Mexican coke before it was hip.

Not everyone thinks the fence upsets the way of life here, however. Arnold Lopez says he hardly sees the steel fence anymore, having crossed it so many times. “It’s not like it’s the Berlin Wall or anything,” he told Schwartz.

RELATED EDITORIAL: Toughened enforcement policies overlook immigrant contributions

Only about 10 percent of the border in Texas is currently fenced in, but President Trump has promised to build 1,250 miles of new border wall, most of it in Texas. A Department of Homeland Security report puts the price tag at a staggering $21.6 billion. If Trump fulfills his vow, it’s likely that much more of Texas will be caught in a no man’s land, because unlike many parts of other border states, in this state the Rio Grande hugs residents’ back yards and vast parcels of private land.

The madly winding shoreline made building a wall a maddening experience for federal officials a decade ago. They learned that fencing along the river’s banks would exacerbate flooding. And most riverfront land in Texas is in private hands, forcing the government to negotiate rights of way or claim eminent domain in the courts.

The prospect of extending the existing wall should lead Texans to ask if building more will expand the No Man’s Land beyond just South Texas.

A border wall is President Trump’s magic answer for solving illegal immigration. His campaign rhetoric stirred up fear, painting a portrait of a sievelike border overrun by criminals and rapists. Trump would have you believe that the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. all sneaked across. He would have you think they’re all from Mexico, and that illegal immigration is growing.

A new study by the Center for Migration Studies, however, separates hot rhetoric from cold reality. The report found that fully two-thirds of immigrants who joined the undocumented population in 2014 did not sneak across, but instead entered the country legally with a valid visa and then overstayed. No amount of border fencing will stop people from entering the U.S. legally.

And the current reality is that the number of Mexicans apprehended by the Border Patrol has plummeted from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to about 193,000 in 2016, a near-historic low. Pew also found that the number of Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. illegally has declined by more than 1 million since 2007. More recently, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly touted a 40 percent drop in the number of illegal border crossings through Mexico this year.

And then there’s this nugget from Pew: The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. has not changed since 2009.

Facts can be inconvenient and I doubt politicians have those figures at their fingertips when they parachute in, donning body armor to ride speedboats down the Rio Grande, flanked by law enforcement officers brandishing high-powered rifles. Fleeting moments made for television campaign commercials.

The Texas border wall fences us in, corralling too a reality that’s as murky as the Rio Grande after a summer thundershower. For every Rio Grande Valley resident who has had it with illegal immigration  — and there are many — you can find at least one other who says a border fence doesn’t make them feel any safer. Some fear an expanded wall will destroy communities, and that money for it would be better spent on motion sensors and technology.

As we all question whether an expanded wall will be efficient and useful, we should glean what we can from life in the shadow of the patchwork border fence in South Texas, and we should ask, “Is a wall worth the cost?”

With Troxclair’s name affixed to affordability plan, it was going nowhere

Austin Council Member Ellen Troxclair fails to pass affordability action plan. 04/10/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Austin Council Member Ellen Troxclair fails to pass affordability action plan.
04/10/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

No one is claiming that the affordable action plan the Austin City Council narrowly rejected this week was perfect – not supporters, such as Traci Berry, a senior vice president for Goodwill Industries.

And not City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who championed the initiative.

But in picking it apart, then voting to postpone it indefinitely – essentially killing it — six council members shut the door on something that was at best a roadmap advancing affordability goals all council members have affirmed. At worst, it was a flawed document with little meat on its bones, which would have put unwarranted restraints on the city budget.

Either way, it could have been handled as a work in progress, fixing and amending it as needed, as Berry noted.

“The most important piece of the plan is that it created a conversation by many stakeholders on a communitywide level — that we are putting our stake in the ground on one of the most important things we need to do in this city and saying, ‘Let’s go,’ ” she told me.

“It should have been all yes (votes) and zero no.”

Instead, the council split 6-5, with Council Members Alison Alter, Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Leslie Pool, Sabino “Pio” Renteria and Kathie Tovo voting against it. In addition to Troxclair, the resolution had the support of Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen – who co-sponsored the resolution.

What sunk a resolution that seemed like a sure thing when it was first rolled out?

Some will say the details were problematic; others will tell you it didn’t go far enough. Still others would say it made the council look bad by not recognizing affordability measures underway. But the inability to coalesce around the resolution even as a working document points to political divisions on the council: Who would get the credit?

Troxclair was the lead sponsor, so the resolution – even with Adler’s support and heavy-hitting backers, including the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Habitat for Humanity — was doomed. Troxclair’s name as chief sponsor was akin to kryptonite.

The resolution laid out recommendations aimed at dealing with the various aspects of Austin’s affordability crisis, including expanding the city’s housing supply and addressing training needs of low-wage workers and the unemployed. But it also endorsed zoning reforms under way in CodeNext and city permitting. It contained a controversial budget option to keep taxes flat.

Though Troxclair championed affordability as key plank of her campaign when she ran for office in 2014, some colleagues believe she has since used the issue to posture, rather than produce. They aimed to teach her how to count votes, it seems.

They cited an American-Statesman commentary penned by Troxclair as an example of Troxclair’s posturing, saying she sets herself up as the lone council member standing up for affordability against a tax-and-spend council.

Troxclair wrote in August, 2016: “In this year alone, I have voted against hundreds of millions in spending, from high-priced consultants to vehicle purchases to cost overruns. I did not vote this way because replacing vehicles every three years and hiring consultants aren’t nice things to do. It is because each purchase ultimately impacts affordability. We must ask ourselves: Is this item a higher priority than financial relief for Austinites?

“Austin residents need a break – and this is the time to take their pleas to heart. We have to end the pattern of consistently increasing spending that has become a crisis for our city. It’s time for action, and it’s time for this budget year to be the Year of Affordability.”

You can judge for yourself if Troxclair was trying to steal her colleagues’ thunder, but if she was, Troxclair was doing what elected officials do: Using her bully pulpit to influence public opinion for her more conservative approach to budgeting and making Austin more affordable. Does she elevate herself by doing that? Sure. But she is not alone on the Council in showing off.

Adler says the discussion and action on Thursday was “not the Council’s finest moment.”

Troxclair says she is “disappointed, but not discouraged.”

Berry says, the Council lost an opportunity to send a strong message to people on the front lines in fixing problems and those bearing the brunt of Austin’s affordability crisis.

“The people who come to us live in poverty so they are marginalized. When they come through our doors, work and education are so important,” she said.

“They have transportation issues and housing issues. When they have to travel 20 plus miles, commuting for low wage jobs, how do they take care of their families? Where is their opportunity to succeed?”

Troxclair’s affordability action plan spoke to those issues. It wasn’t perfect, but it at least got things moving.

 

 

 

 

 

A Trump immigration curveball? More like whiplash

FILE- In this March 3, 2015 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers escort an arrestee in an apartment building, in the Bronx borough of New York, during a series of early-morning raids. New York City leaders are trying to strike a balance between purging dangerous criminals and protecting some of its roughly 500,000 undocumented immigrants. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
In this March 3, 2015 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers escort an arrestee in an apartment building, in the Bronx borough of New York, during a series of early-morning raids. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

When the stunning news broke late Tuesday that President Trump said he is open to an immigration overhaul allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally, one news organization called the president’s abrupt shift on immigration “a curveball.”

Curveball? More like whiplash maybe.

After all, what else are we to make of such a sudden reversal from the president’s hard-line crackdown on illegal immigration during his first weeks in office? Take, for example, last month’s sweeping Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Austin and across the country. And just last week, the administration unveiled new deportation rules allowing federal agents to go after anyone living in the country illegally, even if they haven’t committed serious crimes — a stark contrast to the Obama administration’s policies that placed a priority on deporting criminals.

RELATED EDITORIAL: Toughened Enforcement policies overlook immigrant contributions

“The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides,” the president reportedly told TV news anchors at a White House meeting over lunch Tuesday.

Did this herald a new softer tone on immigration? Remember, this is the same Donald Trump whose rock concert-like campaign rallies reverberated with supporters’ chants of “build the wall!” on the U.S.-Mexico border. And Trump’s run for office began with a pledge to deport the nation’s estimated 11.1 million immigrants, something even those in his own party have described as unrealistic and bordering on fantasy.

Only a few hours after that meeting with the TV anchors, however, the president didn’t even mention in his first joint address to Congress that he might be receptive to an immigration overhaul giving legal status to millions of unauthorized immigrants.

In fact, Trump doubled down on aggressive enforcement, reiterating his campaign promise to begin building a border wall. “A great, great wall,” he called it.

And the president fell back on the familiar refrain of highlighting the crimes of undocumented immigrants, announcing that he has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to work with victims of crimes committed by immigrants who are in the country illegally.

After the speech to Congress, news analysts pounced on the chance to speculate why the president had not brought up his remarks earlier in the day about immigration. One said the president obviously had been reined in by his inner circle, who advised him that now is not the time.

But if not now, when? If the president couldn’t talk about immigration reform to a cheering audience dominated by those of his own party, then when? Certainly not at one of his rallies in places across the country, which Trump continues to hold even after his election, and where his legions of supporters continue their full-throated chant, “Build the Wall!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bahorich moving education board forward; no reason to change leadership

JULY 14, 2015 - State Board of Education chair, Donna Bahorich, Houston, asks a question from staff about GED practices during the State Board of Education meeting held in Austin, Texas, on July 14, 2015. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to chairmanship in June 2015. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
JULY 14, 2015 – State Board of Education chair, Donna Bahorich, Houston, asks a question from staff about GED practices during the State Board of Education meeting held in Austin, Texas, on July 14, 2015. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to chairmanship in June 2015. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

You might say that Donna Bahorich took an old-school approach to proving herself worthy of chairing the State Board of Education, even among some of her critics: She earned it.

That is why her confirmation by the Senate Nominations Committee on Thursday should not be in question. And why the full Senate should support Bahorich’ s reappointment as chair of the 15-member State Board of Education.

I’m not saying that state senators should not press the Houston Republican on issues, such as whether biology standards under review should be limited to the science of evolution or watered down with requirements that undermine the science.

And I’m not suggesting that senators ignore controversies the education board – that sets curriculum standards for Texas public schools and oversees the $37 billion Permanent School Fund – regularly wades into, such as its consideration of a textbook about Mexican-American history and culture. Aside from being racially-insensitive, the book contained 141 errors that scholars pointed out.

Consider this insulting passage from the book: “Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers. Industrialists were very driven, competitive…They were used to their workers putting in a full day’s work, quietly and obediently, and respecting rules, authority, and property. In contrast, Mexican laborers were not reared to put in a full day’s work so vigorously. There was a cultural attitude of “mañana” or “tomorrow” when it came to high-gear production.”

With a deft hand, Bahorich steered the board through that and other such embarrassments, permitting the GOP social conservative bloc on the board to have its say – and at times throw tantrums. All while keeping her eye, and the board’s focus, on improving public schools and engaging more people in the process.

As we witnessed in the case of the textbook, “Mexican American Heritage,” the board landed on the right decision by voting unanimously not to place the book on its preferred adoption list, akin to denying it a Good Housing seal. As such, it’s unlikely that school districts will order or buy the text. She was recognized with a leadership medal from the League of United Latin American Citizens for the way she handled the textbook.

On that front and others, Bahorich has made transparency a key component of the education board’s textbook and curriculum standards review process.

For the first time, instructional materials are available online for public review prior to coming before the board for adoption. That permitted educators, community leaders and parents to weigh in on the Mexican American textbook.

“People can sit in their living rooms in their pajamas and get instructional materials instead of going to a (regional) service center to get them,” Bahorich told me.

That is a big deal, considering that elected members of the board represent individual districts of about 1.6 million people, twice the size of a state senate district with about 800,000 people.

Under Bahorich’s leadership, curriculum standards, such as those for English, Spanish language and reading, also are online for public review before going to the board for final approval. And she has put together major public forums, one dealing with educating a digital generation and the other on educating children in poverty. Those are relevant to public schools, including charters, that educate 5.5 million schoolchildren growing up in a digital world.

First elected in 2012 and reelected in November, Bahorich, 61, is not the enemy of public schools critics predicted she would be, citing her lack of experience with public schools. It’s true she home-schooled her three sons then turned to private, religious schools to fill out their education and extracurricular activities.

She gets good marks from critics for being a more collaborative chair than her GOP predecessors in that post, fostering respectful dialogue, expanding board discussions to include opposing or critical viewpoints, among other things. But she also gets her share of criticism, such as for her position — or lack of one — on public school vouchers.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan watchdog group that monitors and opposes right-wing agendas in education and other areas of government, said Bahorich voted against a resolution, which would have put the education board on the record opposing vouchers.

Bahorich says she has not come to a firm conclusion on vouchers or scholarships that permit parents to use public school money to pay for private school tuition. But, she added, “Nothing should be off the table.”

“We should at least talk about them and not immediately reject (vouchers),” she said. “Having no discussion is not serving children.”

Perhaps. But as I said to Bahorich, if the state is going to establish a program or pilot in which public dollars are steered to private schools through vouchers or scholarships, it must level the playing field by erecting comparable accountability standards for both, including requirements that prevent cherry-picking or dumping — pushing voucher students back to public schools after private schools have ejected them.

It’s should not be that those receiving public education money be exempt from state accountability.

There’s also a political reality for keeping Bahorich as chair. Republicans dominate the board, just as they do state government. Gov. Greg Abbott is not about to select a Democrat to chair the board and among the Republican SBOE members, Bahorich is best suited for the chairmanship.

With her, the board might not avoid controversies, but it won’t wander aimlessly in that swamp — as it did before Bahorich.