Archive for: February 2017
Photos by Elise Cardenas
Article by Selah Maya Zighelboim
Standing on the southern steps of the Texas State Capitol, Texas state representative Garnet Coleman addressed a crowd about the importance of funding for mental health care. For Coleman, who spoke in a lineup that included other state politicians, activists and health workers, the fight to improve access to mental health care is personal.
Coleman has bipolar disorder. He attributes his ability to have a successful life today to his access to the care he needs.
“What I hope to be at any time is an inspiration to people, so they know you can manage your illness,” Coleman said. “You can recover, you can do the things you want to do in life, just maybe with a few more pills than other people.”
The crowd cheered and waved signs with slogans like, “Decriminalize Mental Illness,” “Mental = Physical Health” and “We Matter.” Several hundred people — those with mental illnesses, their family and friends, healthcare professionals and activists — had come to spend the day at the Texas State Capitol on Feb. 8, where they participated in advocacy training, attended a rally and met with legislators.
Though sometimes forgotten about in conversations involving health care, individuals with mental illnesses make up a significant percentage of the populace. According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, 1 in 5 Americans will have a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, an estimated 57.7 million people.
Video by Elise Cardenas and Yelitza Mandujano
The concerns these individuals have as diverse as them. They include tackling stigma, providing more resources in schools for children with mental illnesses and making sure people with mental illness don’t wind up in jail.
“People who need services deserve access to them,” said Greg Hansch, public policy director at the National Alliance for Mental Illness Texas. “No waiting lists. People need individually tailored services that meet their needs. People need access to community-based treatment. People need access to inpatient services. People need crisis services.”
Mental Health America, a mental health non-profit, ranked Texas 45, out of 51 states and the District of Columbia, in terms of mental health care accessibility.
Daniel Dawes, healthcare lawyer and author of 150 Years of Obamacare, says that the main obstacles in accessing mental health care include high costs and a need to integrate mental health services into primary care. Perhaps one of the biggest problems is simply a dearth of available mental health workers.
Rally attendees, like University of Southwestern Medical resident psychiatrist Sarah Baker, expressed a frustration with this lack in treatment options.
“There’s a huge shortage of psychiatrists in the states, so the patient load for psychiatrists can be really high, especially in the public sector,” Baker said.
According to Dawes, the Affordable Care Act has a number of elements to it that specifically bolser mental health care. These include provisions such as integrating mental health care into primary care, requiring rehabilitative and habilitative coverage and strengthening mental health parity. Mental health parity is a requirement for health insurance companies to provide coverage to mental health care at the same level they do other types of health care. Since 1996, health parity has been a requirement for employer-provided health insurance plans, and the Affordable Care Act expanded this to other types of health insurance as well.
“We actually strengthened the parity law,” Dawes said. “Not only should parity apply to the employer-sponsored coverage, it should also apply to any plan you buy in the Obamacare exchanges. It should also apply to Medicaid and Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.”
Dawes says he isn’t sure what to think about a potential repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act. On one hand, he says, President Donald Trump had indicated his support for mental health care during the campaign. On the other hand, he does not find the leading plans to repeal and replace promising.
At the moment, the future of mental health care is uncertain. Potential solutions to this uncertainty may be strengthening access on a more local, state level. For example, Allison Mohr-Boleware and Monica Villarreal, fellows at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said that Texas should have its own mental health parity law. That way, even if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, all health insurance plans will still be required to provide mental health care at the same level as other types of care.
“It has taken us 150 years to get to where we are today, in terms of mental health reform,” Dawes said. “That is something [legislators] need to seriously consider, if they care about this issue of mental health, about addressing the opioid issue in our country. There are now provisions in [the Affordable Care Act] that will help us tackle that. If we get rid of them, imagine how much further behind we are going to be.”
Finding Acceptance in Peer to Peer Communities
Audio by Julie Gomez
Written by: Mackenzie Palmer
The day after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, women and men untied across the nation to march in protest of his administration, policies and overall disregard towards women’s rights.
What started as a mere Facebook post by Teresa Shook, a retired lawyer and first-time activist, soon turned into a movement that gained over 10,000 followers in one night.
On January 21, more than 5 million people participated in the Women’s March on Washington.
Video: Women’s Day March in Austin on January 21, 2017 // Taylor Gantt
“We knew it would be a fairly large turnout, but no one knew for sure what the numbers would be,” Shook said. “To see the reality was just mind-boggling.”
Shook said the purpose of the march was to demonstrate solidarity within all communities and to stand for the protection of women’s rights, safety, and health.
Organizers and supports believe that this past election allowed for demonizing, insulting, and threatening language towards women, minorities, immigrants of all statuses, those with diverse religious backgrounds, the LGBT community, and those economically impoverished.
“This march is the first step towards unifying our communities,” Shook said. “To create change from the grassroots level up.”
The Women’s March on Washington prompted more than 300 sister marches around the world. Official marches were planned in all 50 states in the U.S. and more than 10 international countries including Puerto Rico, Canada, and London.
In Austin, an estimated 50,000 people attended the march, which led from the Texas State Capitol all the way to Congress Avenue. The event gathered Austin locals and those traveling miles to get to the capitol via 35 chartered buses.
“This march is the first step towards unifying our communities”
The city added 14 extra buses and saw a bump of more than 2,400 additional mobile tickets purchased on its app. According to Austin B-Cycle, it registered 839 rentals compared with a typical 435 on a Saturday in January.
Melissa Fiero, one of the organizers for the march in Austin, stated that this isn’t about being anti-Trump.
“It’s about being part of a historic social movement and sending a bold message that women’s rights are human rights,” Fiero said.
Inspired by the Women’s March on Washington, Fiero said that she decided to bring the movement to Austin. She said she spent many nights at the kitchen table, planning and organizing, with a powerful group of dedicated women.
“We were up early, stayed late, held down jobs, took care of families, all just to make it happen,” Fiero said. “That is just what women do.”
Around the world, prominent activists, such as Angela Davis, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, actresses America Ferrera and Scarlett Johansson, and many more were invited to speak on behalf of the movement.
In Austin, Former Texas Senator Wendy Davis spoke to the growing crowd and stated that it is time for women have it all. She was joined with U.S. Congressmen Llyod Doggett who stated the importance of staying joined together.
“We are joined together to say no to racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia,” Doggett said.
Protestors marched toting their signs in the air. Many expressed their desire to reclaim power to their bodies.
When asked why she marches, Olka Forster, from Baltimore, said it is to reject the new administration.
“It means standing up for ourselves and for other people that the people who are now in power have said that they are not worth anything,” Forster said.
Fiero thanked more than 100 local and national sponsoring partners that helped achieve the goal of this march, especially Planned Parenthood.
Among the many reasons to march, sustaining funding to Planned Parenthood is of the groups main motives.
Under President Trump’s administration, protesters fear his ability to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides free breast cancer screening and health services for women and men.
“We’re here today to thank generations of organizers and troublemakers and hell raisers who formed secret sisterhoods and demanded the right to control their own bodies,” Richards said.
After the marches and protests ended, many organizers and activists vowed to stay involved.
The Hear Our Voice Campaign was unveiled, where there would be 10 Actions for the first 100 Days. This effort would keep those who supported the march focused on future joint activism.
In the presidents first 100 days, huddled groups will meet throughout participating cities weekly to push for change in women’s rights. At these events women are encouraged to give their testimony and share how to effectively make changes by calling and writing lawmakers.
“Our focus is to take actual action after the march instead of just making our statement a one time event. Marching is just a small piece of the action we want to take,” Austin Regional Clinic Doctor and group leader, Serena Hon said.
Many activists have taken the initiative to create their own equal rights movement. Jessica Daniel, the starter of Love Letters for Social Justice, hosted a letter-writing event to protest against Governor Greg Abbott and his reactionary laws towards women’s rights.
“Governor Abbot has required cremation or burial for any aborted fetuses, which is an overwhelming expense,” Daniel said. “The government should not have its hands on my body.”
Daniel said protesting and attending events such as these are important for women to have their voice heard. Moving forward, Daniel said it is necessary to give the government harassment in order to have their voices heard.
“Keep calling senators. Keep calling your congressmen. Get on Facebook and social media and look for events like these,” Daniel said.
What started as a small Facebook post has turned into a movement that will not be silenced. Men and women of all backgrounds have decided to dedicate themselves to the continued fight for equal rights.
— Women's March (@womensmarch) February 14, 2017
The organizers of Women’s March on Washington have taken the next steps to put on another event, “A Day Without a Women.” On March 8, International Women’s Day, they are calling women of all backgrounds and nationalities to come together, and “withdraw from corporations that harm us and find ways to support the businesses that sustain us.”
“In 2017, we are going to get together and we are going to be heard,” Daniel said. “We are going to stand up for ourselves and we will not be pushed around.”
- Group project by: Mackenzie Palmer, Taylor Gantt, Kathryn Miles, Peyton Yager
Story/Audio By Katie Keenan
Pictures- Itzel Garcia
Video- James Grachos
Painting of Cuban, and black voice legend, Celia Cruz, hangs in a dark corner of Habana SoCo, a Cuban cuisine restaurant in Austin, Texas.
AUSTIN– The Cuban Adjustment Act, also known as Wet-foot, Dry-foot, was discontinued by former President Obama this January during his last days in office, leaving questions regarding how the law may affect newly undocumented Cuban nationals and international normalization efforts with the last bastion of institutionalized Communism in the world.
“It’s just a political decision…in this case it has been ‘we will grant this because Cubans are special, they live in a special situation’, and that determination had been made,” said immigration lawyer Ana Maria Schwartz, referring to the legal status of Cuban nationals before the act was amended. “Then Obama decided, well, things have changed and then reversed it,” she added.
The act originally came in response to the tense relationship between Cuba and the United States at the height of the Cold War in the 1960’s, which allowed Cubans seeking political asylum to automatically receive green cards after remaining in the U.S. for two years. The act was amended in 1996, restricting the granting of green cards to those who had reached dry land as opposed to being found sailing on makeshift rafts across the ocean.
Rather than hedging his bets on a good day at sea, Rodolfo Perez paid nearly $20,000 to coyotes and law enforcement officials throughout Central America and Mexico to ensure a safe passage for him and his daughter, Oyalenny Benitez. They both arrived in Texas a year ago this February, making it to U.S. soil with just enough time before the law was changed.
“I gave [Oyalenny] money so she could travel to Ecuador, I have ranches in Cuba, so when she saw this other country she said no – I can’t be here dad, I’m leaving,” Perez said in Spanish. “And I said well if you’re going alone, I have to go with you, and that was the reason I came.”
Once Perez and his daughter made their way to Texas, Oyalenny’s husband followed in hot pursuit – but wasn’t as fortunate. Rather than braving a six-month journey starting in Ecuador, Perez’s son-in-law faced multiple detainments in South America, starting in Venezuela and later undergoing starvation in the jungles of Colombia. He eventually reached the U.S., immediately after wet-foot dry-foot was discontinued. Perez understands these changes, but would rather abstain from entering the political foray, for fear of persecution from the Cuban government.
“It looks like things are changing a little bit, but I don’t know anything concerning politics – what I did was work hard in Cuba as a veterinarian, so when it comes to politics, I don’t know a thing,” Perez said.
Now, Perez is a cook for Habana Soco, a Cuban restaurant on South Congress, while his daughter works for the University of Texas Department of Food and Housing Services and at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as a janitor. Through the help of Caritas, a non-profit organization that assists refugees and others looking for stable housing, Perez and Oyalenny were able to begin a life here and receive government benefits, while Oyalenny’s husband remains unemployed and undocumented.
A painting with the words “Cuba” hangs near the exit of the restaurant of Habana SoCo, where Perez works. His job was acquired with the help of Caritas Austin, a non-profit organization focused on helping out the homeless with jobs and housing.
“Was it time for these things? It’s hard for me to judge on that front,” Schwartz said. “I really feel for people from other countries, Central American nations, where things are absolutely terrible right now. I’m fine with wet-foot, dry-foot if we can extend it to other places, that would be interesting.”
Some politicians, such as the son of Cuban immigrants and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, have consistently advocated for the discontinuation of the law, citing instances in which Cubans frequently return to their home country after receiving permanent legal status in the United States.
“There are people that are legitimately fleeing oppression in Cuba,” Rubio said in an interview with the Associated Press in November of last year. “But my problem now is the laws that exist, it’s hard to justify anymore. You have people that are coming and a year and a day later are traveling back to Cuba 15 times…that doesn’t look like someone that is fleeing oppression.”
As for the future of newly arrived undocumented migrants from Cuba, Schwartz said although their future remains uncertain, special conditions for family members and married couples are still in place.
Photos by Jane Morgan Scott
Every Tuesday night, they climb the steps up to a Georgian style mansion with brown brick and white doors. The latch on the door is slightly heavy, and opens with a push. Once inside, they change into shoes with will ease their feet onto the dance floor.
Stephanie and Dan Procter have been attending swing classes at the Texas Federation of Women’s Club commonly called, “The Fed”, for nearly two years now. But, they have been dancing for much, much longer.
The couple first met in 1992 at Ruby’s BBQ when Dan showed up to listen to a live Cajun band.
“And I was there, pretty much minding my own business, this really cute dark-haired girl came up and asked, ‘Will you waltz with me?’” he said.
After the dance, Dan thought his dance partner was endearing, but was discouraged by her friend.
“She was with this guy who was real tall, who I assumed was her boyfriend,” Dan said.
“He wasn’t!” Stephanie chimed in.
After their first encounter, the two bumped into each other at local dance scenes. Even twenty years ago, dancing brought the couple closer together. And while Dan didn’t know much about Stephanie, he was determined to win ask her out on a date.
“They used to have these things called phone directories. They were big, thick books,” Dan said. “I didn’t get how she spelled her [last] name, so I spent a couple of hours flipping through the M’s.”
“Really? I didn’t know that,” Stephanie said laughing.
When Dan finally found Stephanie’s correct last name, he called her and asked her out. She agreed. The two eventually married in 2009, and never left the dance floor.
With dancing styles like Zydeco and two-step on their plate, Dan said it was time for a change.
“After 20 years, you get tired of dancing backwards at the Broken Spoke,” he said referring to an Austin honky-tonk dance hall.
The couple landed inside the Fed on 2312 San Gabriel Street, where the Austin Swing Syndicate houses swing dancing. Thursday evenings feature beginner classes, while other days consist of specialized dancing for balboa, lindy, and shag.
Dan and Stephanie currently attend Sunday-through-Tuesday classes for balboa. Even though the couple does not consider themselves in the “cool” crowd because they are beginners, it’s an adventure for them where they are eager to learn.
“The steps are more complicated, and the rhythms are more varied,” Dan said. “I find it more challenging, although more fun.”
Stephanie enjoys the change in attire and culture.
“I got to buy a bunch of different shoes for this,” she says.
The shoes used in swing dancing have what Dan says is a “slidey” sole. He bought his from a local thrift store, and Stephanie has three pairs of shoes with small heels and straps around the ankles.
“It’s different from boots,” she added.
Dan’s favorite part about dancing?
“Dancing with Stephanie,” he said looking at his 50-year-old wife.
“For me, he’s always been my favorite partner,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie said she’s also enjoyed the nonverbal communication of dancing.
“You’re having a physical conversation, and it doesn’t have to be sexy. But it is a communication form,” she said.
Dan adds that there is no real age limit to dancing, as he is 63 years old. This is evident since every week at least 200 to 300 people attend the Fed for swing dancing. Middle-aged couples to pre-teenagers come through the door, some regulars, others first-timers.
The Procters’ advice for those wanting to join is to ignore what others might think.
“Don’t worry what you look like!” Stephanie said.
“Realize that nobody is really watching you. And if you’re a beginner, they’re going to recognize that, and they’re not gonna judge you for it,” Dan said.
Dan said that ultimately, perseverance is needed to have a good time.
“There is bit of a wall you have to push through, and that’s what we’re doing right now with swing.”
Written by Ceci Gonzales
Video by Meredith Knight
Audio by: Karla Benitez
Story by: Grant Gordon
Infographics by: Ashika Sethi
President Donald Trump’s commitment to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is one of the most important and polarizing aspects of the early days of his tenure in the White House.
Trump’s health care decisions will have lasting effects on all Americans and on an industry that has seen immense changes over the last decade, including the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, in 2010.
In January, Trump demanded that Congress immediately begin the process of repealing Obamacare, according to the New York Times.
Charles Silver, a health care law and policy professor at the School of Law at the University of Texas at Austin, believes that the Affordable Care Act simply exacerbated a pre-existing problem in American health care.
“Even before Obamacare came around, we were spending twice as much as other developed countries per person on health care, but we were getting substantially worse results,” Silver said in an interview.
Silver said that the Affordable Care Act included a Medicaid expansion that provided coverage to about 20 million previously uninsured people. He said Obamacare also eliminated the policy that allowed health insurance companies to deny coverage to high-risk, unhealthy individuals, which included another 10 million Americans in health insurance plans.
“When you take an existing system that is dysfunctional and incredibly expensive, and dump 30 million new people into it, the predictable result is it’s going to be a disaster,” Silver said. “It’s not going to change anything structurally that would make life better.”
Silver said the expansion of the flawed system only caused costs to rise, as healthy people are forced to subsidize the cost of providing insurance for sicker people who generate regular expenses. Richard Craycroft, an Austin-based small business owner, experienced those problems first-hand.
Craycroft runs a real estate inspection sole proprietorship, and he has always provided health insurance for himself and his family.
“We’ve had almost a 300 percent increase in the cost of our insurance in five years,” Craycroft said in an interview. He attributed this increase to his “gigantic deductibles,” and said his insurance plan has not changed despite the price increases.
Craycroft is one of 14.3 million Texans who does not receive health insurance through his employer, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. 4.3 million Texans are left uninsured, which is the highest mark of any state.
Under the Affordable Care Act, individuals are forced to pay more and more for health care plans that have remained largely unchanged. However, Silver said a repeal of Obamacare would put the 10 million high-risk individuals who were guaranteed coverage under the Affordable Care Act in a very difficult position.
Before the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, high-risk individuals turned to state pools, which provided state-subsidized health insurance to those who were locked out of the individual insurance market due to pre-existing health conditions. But Silver said most states abolished their high-risk pools after Obamacare was put into place, as high-risk individuals gained access to coverage on the private exchanges.
Silver said high-risk individuals may “find life very difficult” if the Obamacare coverage guarantee is repealed.
“I do not know where these people are going to turn,” Silver said.
Neither Silver nor Craycroft can predict what steps the Trump administration will take for a new health insurance policy. Craycroft proposed a “cafeteria plan,” where individuals can pick and choose the specific types of insurance.
“You choose a plan that’s right for you, instead of some government-mandated one-size-fits-all plan,” Craycroft said. “Because it doesn’t fit everybody.”
Silver hopes the health insurance system moves in the free market direction of the retail health sector. He said plastic surgery, for example, is not covered by insurance, but costs have been stable throughout history due to price transparency that is not available in the health care industry.
Whatever the Trump administration decides for a new health care policy, it is certain that a new law will have long-lasting and wide-sweeping effects. Unfortunately, Silver does not believe those effects will have a positive impact.
“I do not lament the repeal,” he said, “but I don’t think the repeal will fundamentally improve anything; it’s just going to return us to a system that was thoroughly dysfunctional before.”