Connie Paredes, a 41-year-old volunteer with the Texas Organizing Project, paid $50 for a luncheon ticket Wednesday to hear Gov. Rick Perry address an audience of small-business folks at the Austin Hilton downtown. She ended up, along with two of her colleagues, having a 20-minute closed-door meeting with the governor on the issue closest to their heart — expanding Medicaid.
“Yes, it was worth the price of admission,” Paredes said. She was referring to both the $50 and her willingness, along with a handful of fellow TOP activists, to stand one by one and heckle Perry about his unwillingness to expand Medicaid coverage in Texas, as the Obama administration would like.
Beginning with the arrest of one of their members for attempting to disrupt Perry’s State of the State address from the House balcony in January, TOP, a 3-year-old progressive advocacy group, has been dogging Perry on the Medicaid issue ever since — in Austin, Dallas, Houston and when he spoke to the Texas State Society in Washington in February.
After the first couple of hecklers stood and shouted at the luncheon, Perry agreed to meet with the protesters back at his Capitol office after the speech if they would let him speak. The choreographed outbursts continued, including Paredes’, in which she said, “If you’re going to make Texas amenable for small business, then what are you doing to help?”
“I didn’t trust that he would meet with us, and I didn’t want to lose my chance to address my issue,” said Paredes, a TOP volunteer from Dallas, where the Houston-based organization has a significant presence.
Perry nonetheless agreed to meet with three of the protesters.
Speaking briefly with reporters afterward, Perry put a positive spin on the meeting — no “great epiphanies … but we actually found that there was a lot of things that we agreed on. Medicaid’s broken.”
He said he asked them to join him in asking Washington to let Texas use federal monies for a pilot program to create “a health care system that is more affordable, more efficient, more accessible” than Medicaid.
The governor seemed “an agreeable person,” Paredes said, but wasn’t responsive to the group’s concerns, telling them that the federal government doesn’t really have the money to pay for Medicaid expansion and would have to borrow it from China and elsewhere.
She said she suggested the state go along with Medicaid expansion, take the federal money that will pay for all or most of it in the years to come, and then figure out how to reform the system, and not to simply resist expansion in the state with the nation’s largest percentage of uninsured residents.