Health Care Hecklers Meet With Perry

Updated, 4:15 p.m.:

Gov. Rick Perry met with three health care activists who helped organize a protest of his speech before Austin business leaders Wednesday.

Perry invited the activists to his office after a dozen or more protesters infiltrated a ballroom at the downtown Hilton Austin Hotel, where Perry was speaking before a gathering of the “2013 Global Business Summit” being put on by his office. They heckled him repeatedly, chanting in English and Spanish, but Perry got through his speech highlighting the state’s strong business climate.

The protest, orchestrated by the Texas Organizing Project, was meant to highlight the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid despite having the largest uninsured population in the country. Neither side budged from its position, but by all accounts it was a cordial meeting.

“We had a good meeting. I don’t think we came to any great epiphanies in there, but we actually found that there were a lot of things that we agreed on,” Perry said. “Medicaid is broken.”

Perry said he asked the protesters to help urge Congress to give Texas flexibility to create its own health care solution rather than taking federal money to expand a flawed system.

“I think we could show the rest of the country how to implement a health care system that is more affordable, more efficient, more accessible,” Perry said.

TOP organizer Allison Brim, one of the three invited to the meeting in a room adjacent to the governor’s office, called the meeting “respectful” but said Perry offered nothing concrete to the millions of Texans who need health coverage.

“I feel like he’s continuing to refuse to offer a real solution for hard-working Texans,” she said. “We’re going to continue to organize, continue to mobilize and let people know in Texas that he’s not representing the interests of hard-working uninsured Texans.”

The Texas Organizing Project has led multiple protests throughout the session — from Perry’s State of the State speech to Wednesday — urging the governor to reconsider his opposition to Medicaid expansion. The state’s two largest medical trade associations, the Texas Medical Association and Texas Hospital Association, have also encouraged lawmakers to reform the program and find a politically feasible way to draw down the federal funds.

As many as 4.4 million of the 5.8 million Texans without insurance in 2010 could have insurance by 2014 if Texas expands Medicaid and takes advantage of other federal health reforms, according to a Hobby Center report. Over 10 years, Texas would draw down $100 billion in federal dollars — while spending $15 billion — if the state expanded Medicaid coverage, according to estimates by Billy Hamilton, a fiscal consultant and the former deputy state comptroller.

On Monday, the House approved a measure that would prevent the governor or state health commissioner from expanding Medicaid eligibility without legislative approval. If legislative conferees allow the measure to stay on Senate Bill 7, Texas would not have the option of expanding Medicaid eligibility for at least two years, unless the governor called a special session to address the issue.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, attempted to persuade his colleagues to approved a “Texas alternative” to Medicaid expansion — in an attempt to draw down the federal funds — throughout the session. Both a bill he filed and a budget rider that would have laid out private-market driven reforms to the Medicaid program died from political pressure.

Original story:

About two dozen protesters who want Texas to expand Medicaid loaded in a van headed to a meeting with Gov. Rick Perry after they repeatedly interrupted a speech the governor was delivering Wednesday at a Hilton hotel in downtown Austin.

The disruption was orchestrated by the Texas Organizing Project, which supports Medicaid expansion in Texas, a plan that Perry deeply opposes. About a half-dozen hecklers rose during Perry's speech at a small-business forum to challenge the governor's rejection of the federal expansion of Medicaid. Perry, who eventually finished his speech after inviting the protesters back to his office for a meeting to discuss the issue, remained calm during the repeated interruptions.

Perry has repeatedly and adamantly said that he opposes the expansion of Medicaid in Texas under the federal Affordable Care Act, which he and other conservative lawmakers argue would eventually bankrupt the state.

The protesters infiltrated the audience at the hotel. At the beginning of his speech and various points during it, about a half-dozen stood up and chanted both in English and Spanish.

A woman stood first, chanting “expand Texas health care” over and over.

"Expand Texas health care," Perry repeated back to her. "I’ve got that down."

He continued with his remarks, but a second person stood up and urged expansion of Medicaid.

“I’m going to ask you to sit down,” Perry said. Some of the hecklers were escorted by security but as the interruptions continued, Perry invited the group to come to a meeting at the Governor's Mansion.

As Perry continued his speech, which focused on the value of small business in Texas and the state's growing economy, some protesters remained outside the hotel, holding signs and chanting slogans such as "Open for business, not for health care."

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