Bob Christie, AP
Democratic state lawmakers criticized Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's cuts to a state health care program, calling the elimination of benefits for some medical transplants equivalent to setting up "death panels." They urged Brewer to either call a special session of the Legislature to restore the funding or to use federal stimulus funds she controls to do so. Brewer has previously rejected the calls.
Incoming Democratic leaders of the Senate and House and other lawmakers gathered at a news conference with four people who need transplant surgeries and a surgeon who heads a national transplant group. Senate Minority Leader David Schapira called the cuts to the state medical care program for the poor an urgent matter that must be dealt with immediately. "People's lives truly depend on this issue, perhaps more than any issue that the state of Arizona has ever faced," Schapira said. He noted at least 97 people who need transplants can't get them because of cuts to the state Medicaid program known as the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
Democratic Rep. Anna Tovar, who had bone marrow transplants in 2001 and 2002 to treat leukemia, said she was living proof that transplants work. Now healthy, Tovar said she had a second chance at life and that others deserve the same. "But the governor and the Republicans cut health care, and therefore cut their opportunity for a lifesaving transplant," Tovar said. "This 'Brewercare' has set up real death panels here in Arizona and it is outrageous and disgusting."
Brewer has said the state can't afford to maintain its current program and its previous services. Spokesman Paul Senseman reiterated that she has no federal money available and no plans to call a special legislative session. The state already faces added Medicaid costs and optional services are off the table, he said. "This notion that somehow we're going to be able to focus on optional coverage when the federal government has mandated billions of dollars in requirements seems incongruous with reality," Senseman said. "We cannot sustain the program we currently have."
Republican Rep. John Kavanagh said the state has to fund what it can. "Unlike the Democrats who have been marginalized by the voters and by their own over-the top rhetoric on this issue, the Republicans have to deal with the reality of the budget," said Kavanagh, who leads the House appropriations committee. "We need to fund what works and not fund what doesn't work and pay for what we can afford." He said the cuts only eliminated transplants that the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System found to not increase life expectancy.
Dr. Maryl Johnson, a heart transplant surgeon and president of the American Society of Transplantation, disagreed, saying her group has presented new information to the state on survival rates. The cuts went into effect on October 1 and affected some bone marrow, heart and liver transplants, plus occupational and speech therapy. The cuts are expected to save about $5 million in the fiscal year that began July 1, but also cost the state about $15 million in federal matching funds. About $1.5 million would have been spent on transplants.
The Legislature adopted the cuts as part of budget-balancing earlier this year, and Brewer has defended the elimination of some transplant funding as necessary. Democrats have little power to push restoration of the funding, since Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's office. But they tried again Tuesday to shame Republicans into acting, pointing out that country club dues and face lifts are tax deductible in Arizona. Closing those and other tax breaks could restore the transplant funding and much more, they said.
"Look at the people, look at all of us," said Mesa resident Randy Shepherd, a 36-year-old father at the news conference who wants the state to pay for a heart transplant. "We need these procedures. It has nothing to do with options or electives for us." Shepherd said he has three children at home who need him.
Another patient, Chandler resident Tiffany Tate, 27, said she learned early this year that her lungs were so badly damaged by cystic fibrosis that she needed a lung transplant to live. She was put on a transplant list in April and was approved by the state. "From that time I really got excited to know that I could live a new life that I'd never lived before and do things that I've always wanted to do, like hiking and skiing and traveling and playing basketball again," Tate said. Then she received a letter saying the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System would no longer pay for a transplant.