State of Texas: Issues raise concerns, inspire bipartisanship after State of the State address

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Governor Greg Abbott painted a positive picture about his plan to get COVID-19 vaccines to more Texans in his State of the State address.

“As additional vaccines are approved, we will continue expanding vaccinations across Texas until every Texan who wants one will be able to get one,” Abbott said.

More than 2 million Texans have been vaccinated, but many of the state’s most vulnerable citizens have still not received their vaccines.

In January, Abbott visited Houston where he credited large vaccine hubs for getting the vaccines to large numbers of Texans.

“Now one way that Texas has been able to tremendously accelerate vaccinations, is by opening up these large scale hub vaccine centers like what Houston Methodist has been able to accomplish,” Abbott said. “What this does is that allows communities to have several locations, capable of vaccinating thousands of people at each of those locations.”

Those vaccine hubs are not the safest locations for at-risk populations, including 79-year-old Lila Bradshaw from Corpus Christi who has been in quarantine for months.

“I had spoken to my doctor, and he really recommended that I not go to one of the big sites,” Bradshaw said.

In order to reach Texans like Bradshaw, the Corpus Christi Fire Department has teamed up with Meals on Wheels to deliver vaccines to homebound senior citizens. Corpus Christi Fire Chief Robert Rocha said it was an ideal way to help those in the most vulnerable population.

“We could access those lists, who already have a pre-programmed route that they take, we could shadow them, and vaccinate senior citizens in their home,” Rocha said.

Now, the State Health Department is looking at Corpus Christi as the perfect example for vaccinating seniors, said DSHS Associate Commissioner Imelda Garcia.

“The new focus on the 75 and older is highlighted in the coming weeks in order to help us try to get our what we’re calling our super seniors vaccinated really quickly in a timely way,” Garcia said.

While a significant focus is on seniors, they are not the only population the state is trying to reach with vaccines. The state is also trying to expand mobile vaccine distribution to rural counties.

“The expert vaccine allocation panel has actively been discussing, getting more vaccines to our rural areas,” Garcia said.

Dewitt County residents participated in this new rollout last week, including Sandra Brazil, a Cuero school nurse.

“My mom, she’s 90 years old,” Brazil said. “I work in the school system, and I’m protecting myself, but I don’t, I don’t want you know, to bring anything home to her.”

This week, the state is adding five more counties to their rural area vaccine rollout.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor delivered his State of the State address away from the Capitol. Abbott decided to highlight an innovative Texas startup in Lockhart, southeast of Austin. Visionary Fiber Technologies (VFT) creates technologies that are changing the way chemicals are refined.

After the governor’s address, KXAN anchor Sally Hernandez moderated a roundtable discussion with Democratic state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, Republican state Rep. Geanie Morrison, D-Victoria, State of Texas anchor Josh Hinkle and Texas Politics Project director Jim Henson.

In his address, given every two years at the start of a new legislative session, Gov. Abbott set five emergency items. This allows for bills pertaining to those items to be voted on before the March 12 bill-filing deadline. Emergency items are a way for the governor to set the agenda for the first 60 days of the legislative session.

Abbott’s emergency items include election integrity, improving broadband access and liability protections for businesses.

“Texas businesses that have operated in good faith shouldn’t have their livelihood destroyed by frivolous lawsuits,” Abbott said. “I’m asking the legislature to quickly get a bill to my desk that provides civil liability protections for individuals, businesses, and healthcare providers that operated safely during the pandemic.”

During the roundtable discussion, representatives from both parties agreed that unemployment should be a focus this session.

“Jobs are very important,” Morrison said. “And we’ve got to make sure Senator West that we do work together. And we will work together and I’m looking forward to working with you because people do need to get their jobs back.”

In a response video featuring iron worker Jared Strange, Texas Democrats took aim at Abbott’s economic policies.

“Working Texans want a fair shot to get ahead,” Strange said. “But the Republicans in charge at the Capitol aren’t getting the job done. We’re sick of politicians who care more about political donors than about our paychecks and who work to cut taxes for big business, even when those companies ship jobs overseas.”

Another emergency item is bail reform, specifically the Damon Allen Act.

“A broken bail system that recklessly allows dangerous criminals back out onto our streets,” Abbott said. “Too many Texans like Damon Allen have been murdered because of our broken bail system.”

Allen was a state trooper who was shot and killed during a traffic stop. The gunman was out on a $15,000 bond after being arrested for aggravated assault of a public servant. Abbott is pushing for the Damon Allen Act, which would create a bail system based on the severity of the crime rather than the income of the accused.

Abbott’s last emergency item is to create laws which would stop Texas cities from defunding the police.

“We will support our law enforcement officers not demonize and defund them,” Abbott said. “Defunding law enforcement invites crime and chaos into communities. It risks the lives and livelihoods of innocent people to keep Texans safe and to discourage cities from going down this dangerous path.”

In their response, Democrats put a spotlight on racial equality issues. Black Lives Matter activist Candace Matthews spoke on the need for police reform and racial justice in the Democrat response video.

“Our communities should not have to live with trauma and fear of wondering if they or their families or their neighbors will be next to die from police brutality,” Matthews said. “Black lives matter. Black jobs matter, Black livelihoods matter and Black communities matter.”

In preparation for the roundtable discussion, Senator West received an advance copy of the governor’s address, which showed that Abbott would not be discussing racial justice issues. West sought out the governor before the live address. West said they spoke about the George Floyd Act, police reform legislation he filed in the Senate.

“Well, in fact I mentioned it to him tonight, and he was open to supporting legislation dealing with police accountability,” West said during the live broadcast after the address. “I was dismayed that he didn’t mention that in his speech, because that’s an emergency, not only in Texas, but in this country.”

A survey by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs found that 72% of Texans support the George Floyd Act, authored by West, which would ban chokeholds and require officers to intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force.

In June, Abbott attended a public visitation for George Floyd where he said it was the most horrific tragedy he has personally witnessed. At that time, Abbott said he was open to legislation regarding police reform.

Telemedicine in Texas

The pandemic has highlighted how important and useful telemedicine is, and more Texans are using it to access care.

The Texas Medical Association said 72% of patients had their first telemedicine visit during the pandemic, and 74% of their physicians used the technology too.

Lawmakers also embraced the trend. At the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Abbott temporarily lifted some state restrictions on telemedicine which allowed for doctors to be paid by insurance companies for telehealth visits. Now the governor is calling for those restrictions to be permanently lifted.

“One healthcare tool that proved very helpful during the pandemic was the use of telemedicine,” Abbott said. “It’s convenient. It’s convenient for both the patient and the doctor. We should seize the opportunity this session to permanently expand telemedicine so that every Texan in every region of the state can benefit from it.”

Restrictions on telemedicine began to lift in 2017 when an in-person follow-up appointment was no longer needed. In 2019, healthcare providers were given the option to choose their telemedicine platform instead of using whichever one was required by insurance companies.

This year, Democratic state representative Julie Johnson filed a bill that would establish “pay parity.” If passed, this bill would make insurance companies pay the same amount for an in-person or telehealth appointment.

However, this new insurance policy would only impact state regulated plans. Private insurance plans would remain unaffected.

Doctors such as Dr. Guadalupe Zamora use telemedicine to care for patients while quarantining or otherwise unable to come to the office in person. Zamora, a family medicine physician in East Austin, uses it to check on his COVID-19 patients everyday without needing to risk catching or spreading the disease himself.

Telemedicine makes the jobs of doctors easier and safer, but it is only sustainable as long as insurance companies treat it the same as in-person visits.

“There’s always been a push back because they don’t think that this is a true method of treating a patient,” Zamora said.

Aetna, Humana and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas have all committed to continue paying physicians the same amount for virtual and in-person visits after the pandemic has subsided.

However, this may not be enough to sustain telemedicine in practices, according to Cedar Park physician Cameron King. Some health insurance providers force patients to go to a different doctor for telemedicine rather than their primary care physician.

“If we don’t get payment for it there’s no way that we can really sustain that,” King said.

While federal lawmakers regulate private insurance companies, the Texas government has no control over them. The Biden administration will most likely continue telemedicine coverage for Medicare patients. Through the Affordable Care Act, the governor and Texas lawmakers have control over medicaid and other state regulated health insurance plans, which impact about 45% of Texans.

Lisa Kirsch, senior policy director at Dell Medical School, speculates whether or not coverage will continue will depend on the state’s budget.

“I think the policy hurdle is the fiscal note,” Kirsch said. “If the data is undecided it’s going to be ‘Will there be a cost to the state’s budget?'”

Zamora hopes the coverage for telemedicine continues for the sake of his patients.

“Patients of Texas are going to suffer because many times, particularly our older folks, can’t get here to the office,” Zamora said.

Governor calls for business liability protections

The governor highlighted success stories of businesses coming to Texas as part of his State of the State address. But he said lawmakers need to do more to keep companies in the state. He made it an emergency item to protect businesses from lawsuits related to the pandemic.

“Texas businesses that have operated in good faith shouldn’t have their livelihood destroyed by frivolous lawsuits,” Abbott said. “I’m asking the legislature to quickly get a bill to my desk that provides civil liability protections for individuals, businesses, and healthcare providers that operated safely during the pandemic.”

During the roundtable discussion, representatives from both parties agreed that unemployment should be a focus this session.

“Jobs are very important,” Morrison said. “And we’ve got to make sure Senator West that we do work together. And we will work together and I’m looking forward to working with you because people do need to get their jobs back.”

However, the Democrats fired at Abbott’s economic policies in their response video featuring Jared Strange, an iron worker.

“Working Texans want a fair shot to get ahead,” Strange said. “But the Republicans in charge at the Capitol aren’t getting the job done. We’re sick of politicians who care more about political donors than about our paychecks and who work to cut taxes for big business, even when those companies ship jobs overseas.”

Broadband plan could bring bipartisan work

In his State of the State address, Gov. Abbott mentioned how the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare Texas’s need for complete broadband access.

“From medicine, to education, to business, broadband access is not a luxury; it is an essential tool that must be available for all Texans,” Abbott said. “That is why I am making the expansion of broadband access and emergency item this session.”

Sen. West and Rep. Morrison agreed on the importance of this issue, particularly in how it affects education, a topic the two Texas lawmakers share an interest in.

Last legislative session, West and Morrison worked with Abbott and other lawmakers to pass House Bill 3. This bipartisan bill increased funding for Texas public schools.

Abbott addressed funding in his address, saying state investment in education is “a victory for teachers, for students and for parents.”

During the roundtable discussion, West and Morrison committed to continuing the work of H.B. 3 and decreasing the digital divide to eliminate unequal access to education.

“I’ll work with [Gov. Abbott] on connectivity, to make certain for once and for all that we make certain that we deal with this digital divide that we continue to talk about,” West said.

The issue of rural broadband hits home for Morrison, who represents Victoria, one of the areas in Texas still lacking complete coverage.

“Broadband and that being an emergency item is huge for me, because representing a rural area, we still have a lot of areas that don’t have access and supporting House Bill 3 and making sure that we fully fund it,” Morrison said. “I’m committed 100% to do that. And I know Senator West is also, so that’s something we definitely are going to work together to do.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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