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“Death Panel” Accusations Hit Texas Senate

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March 28, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas - A Senate Finance panel has recommended restoring $4.5 billion for various health and human services in the next state budget. Notably absent from the subcommittee's priority list is a program that provides drugs to low-income HIV/AIDS patients.

One of two members who voted against the spending plan says it amounts to deciding who lives and who dies. AIDS Services of Austin Executive Director Paul Scott agrees.

"These medications are so critical, it's as if you're denying someone oxygen, and the consequence is death."

No one argues the program hasn't been successful. About 14,000 low-income Texans are currently benefiting from the free medications - and in today's rough economy, enrollment is rising.

Scott says alternative resources for the needy are already tapped out. He rejects arguments that, with a $24 billion shortfall, the state simply can't afford to spend $20 million maintaining the drug program's growth. Every community in Texas, he says, would feel an even greater financial impact if the state stopped helping poor people who are living with HIV.

"With the drugs, they can get a job, they can pay their taxes, they can live their lives and they don't carry an additional expense burden on our health system. That's the whole reason why this program is so effective, in terms of preventative care."

Senators who recommended against fully funding the HIV Medication Program say they're just trying to balance the budget, as state law requires. They expressed hope that additional non-tax revenues might be found for the drugs, sometime in the future.

Sens. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and John Whitmire (D-Houston) opposed the Subcommittee on Medicaid spending recommendations Thursday. The panel's five remaining members - all Republicans - endorsed the recommendations. The full Finance Committee takes up the measure next.

Peter Malof/Deb Courson, Public News Service - TX