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WESLACO, RGV – Participants at an RGV Equal Voice Network seminar on healthcare said their event was being held on a special day – the day a Republican effort to kill off Obamacare spectacularly failed.

The dramatic scenes on the U.S. Senate floor in the early hours of Friday morning – with brain cancer-suffering U.S. Sen. John McCain casting the decisive vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act – were a major talking point at the Equal Voice event.

“Obviously today turned out to be a special day because last night the U.S. Senate finally called a halt, at least for now, to their plans to cut the Medicaid program for Texas and to take away some of the benefits of health insurance that the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare has brought us,” said Anne Dunkelberg, associate director for Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Austin.

Asked if a big cheer should go out in the room to McCain, Dunkelberg said:

“We’re very grateful to Senators Collins and Murkowski and McCain. We certainly don’t think McCain deserves more credit than those brave women who have been very steadfast on standing up for access for healthcare. But absolutely thrilled that Senator McCain took the position that he did.”

Dunkelberg, who joined CPPP in 1994, is considered one of the state’s leading experts in policy and budget issues relating to health care access. In 2007, she was named Consumer Advocate of the Year by Families USA in Washington, D.C. Before coming to the Center, she served as Program Director for Acute Care in the Texas Medicaid Director’s Office and spent six years with the Texas Research League, where she authored numerous reports on Texas health and human services issues and tracked state health and human services budget issues.

Dunkelberg earned dual degrees from The University of Texas at Austin—a Bachelor of Arts (Plan II), magna cum laude, in 1979 and a Master of Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs in 1988.

She was invited to give the keynote address at the Equal Voice event and titled her speech “Access to Health Care: Federal and State Updates and the Challenges Ahead.” The event was organized by the RGV Equal Voice Network’s healthcare working group and co-funded by Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. It was held at the offices of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council in Weslaco.

“We had planned this a while back so we obviously had no way in knowing where Congress would be in their actions,” Dunkelberg told reporters, during a break in her presentation.

“I was here today to talk about what’s happening with Congress’s plans to cut the Medicaid program and repeal the Affordable Care Act and also to talk about what is happening in our Texas legislature about healthcare.”

Asked what repeal of the Affordable Care Act would have meant for Texas, Dunkelberg said:

“Well it really would affect in Texas in terms of numbers. Our Medicaid program is three quarters children, so we have over three million Texas children who get Medicaid today and another 400,000 who get our Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP.

“But, we also cover hundreds of thousands of Texas seniors, of people with disabilities. Texas Medicaid pays for the delivery of more than half of the babies born in Texas every single year and then we cover a small number of parents.”

So, supporters of Medicaid live to fight another day, Dunkelberg was asked.

“Yes, we live to fight another day. Certainly, the struggle is not over. One the things I was trying to explain to this group is that within the Republican Party you have people that want the government to get completely out of healthcare that would not be just Obamacare but also to cut or eliminate Medicaid. But, you also have more moderate Republicans who want to make these systems work better and it’s very hard to find middle ground between those extremes.”

In her speech, Dunkelberg raised some eyebrows when she claimed that when it comes to healthcare policy, the state government is in many ways more dysfunctional than the federal government.

Asked about this later, Dunkelberg said:

“Well we sure have our own version (of dysfunction) here. Right now, we have almost a war between our Texas Senate and our Texas House. From the perspective from my organization the House seems to be the more constructive alternative that is trying to find ways to make programs work better, trying to find ways to fund our public schools, trying to adopt policies that will not drive billions of business and tourist dollars out of Texas. But, it’s a very contentious time right now and again its some of the same types of dynamics we see in Congress.”

Also in her speech, Dunkelberg paid tribute to the work of the Children’s Health Coalition and the RGV Equal Voice Network. She praised the two groups for busing border residents to the state Capital during legislative sessions.

“All along the Texas-Mexico border is such an important area to our state and one of the maps that I showed the group was that we have counties not just along this border but in other parts of Texas too where three quarters of the children are enrolled in either Medicaid or CHIP. It is critically important that every elected official from those parts of Texas fully understand how important that is to their economy, to their community, to their children. Then they’d be part of defending the Medicaid program for children as well as seniors and people with disabilities,” Dunkelberg said.

Asked what the biggest takeaway from the seminar was, Dunkelberg said:

“I think the biggest take away for today is that while we are really relieved that the immediate threat to our Texas Medicaid program that serves over 4 million Texans and our Obamacare marketplace that is covering probably 1.1 million additional Texans is gone, we know that there is going continue to be a struggle and a discussion in the country about whether not our state and the federal government is part of helping Texans and Americans have access to a decent standard of healthcare. It’s really important for everybody obviously in the healthcare world but also just regular citizens to stay engaged and keep raising their voices.”

Asked if she would like to say anything else to the readers of the Rio Grande Guardian, Dunkelberg said: “Only that I’m thrilled to be here. I wish I could come more often.”