new rules forced families to re-enroll every six months instead of annually, imposed a 90-day waiting period before benefits kick in, and tightened eligibility requirements. For those with mental illnesseswhich can be just as debilitating as physical onesthe situation is no better. Families with money can find good mental-health treatment. Those who rely on the public system have trouble. Texas ranks 47th in per capita spending on mental health care. State officials estimate that public mental-health clinics treat only one-third of Texans with severe mental illness. That leaves hundreds of thousands to fend for themselves; many end up in prison, some even on death row. \(The U.S. Supreme Court has just agreed to hear an appeal from condemned inmate Scott Panetti, who believes the devil is trying to kill him and that evil forces poisoned his mother’s breast milk. Panetti was allowed to defend himself at trial, and the question now is whether a man who has been hospitalized 14 times during his life for schizophrenia and other mental problems is sane enough to understand why he The state’s miserly approach to health-care spending may save money in the short term, but cost more in the long run. Children and adults without health insurance lead sickly lives and are less productive economically. When they get sick, they Gov. Rick Perry photo by Jody Horton go to public emergency roomsthe single most expensive place to receive care. That goes on the public tab. The government also pays a higher bill to incarcerate the mentally ill for long periods. The Legislature could mitigate some of these problems immediately. For instance, roughly 60 percent of Texas’ ment assistance, and could be enrolled in either Medicaid or CHIP immediately, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin think tank. To cover these kids, the Legislature would have to increase funding for both programs. Lawmakers also would have to undo the cuts from 2003restore 12-month eligibility, for exampleso more families could easily enroll and remain in the programs. It also wouldn’t hurt to expand Medicaid and CHIP coverage; many of Texas’ benefitssuch as coverage for the elderly and disabledsatisfy only the bare minimums under federal law. Finally, lawmakers could end their obsession with privatizing the social safety net, particularly the ill-fated attempt to allow a private companyinstead of state workersto enroll applicants in social programs. In its problem-plagued pilot program, Accenture, the company awarded the contract, has made a mess of the process, including denying benefits to some eligible applicants. Democrats and some Republicans tried to pass many of these measures last session and surely will try again in 2007. On the mental-health side, the legislative solution is rather straightforward: more money. A substantial increase in funding for mental health care isn’t just the humane thing to do, it makes economic sense. Those who receive treatment for mental illness might well stay out of prison and become productive workers in steady jobs. The Lege also could provide more support for jail diversion programs, which send nonviolent offenders with mental illness to treatment programs instead of the state pen. Expanding the welfare state apparently doesn’t jibe with the current ruling ideology in Texas, even though saving moneyif not liveswould seem compatible with a conservative agenda. SCHOOLHOUSE CROCK State District Judge John Dietz ruled the state’s system of financing public schools unconstitutional in 2004, triggering two years of posturing and mudfights as lawmakers tried to figure out how to simultaneously lower property taxes and properly fund education. The remedy lawmakers finally adopted during a 2006 special session did little to directly address one of the problems Dietz found: Schools across Texas, especially in poorer districts, are literally falling down. Precise numbers are hard to come by because, as Dietz noted, the state doesn’t do a very good job of tracking how much money school districts need to fix up their facilities. In 1996, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that about one-quarter of Texas schools had inadequate heating, continued on page 20 JANUARY 26, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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