Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs

The University can offer its health plan to graduate and postdoctoral research fellows if lawmakers approve a bill currently in the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs.

The Texas Insurance Code stipulates who qualifies to participate in the University’s employee health insurance program. Graduate students who do research funded by outside fellowships and are not employed directly by the University do not qualify under the code. Proposed legislation would change the code to make research fellows eligible.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, authored the bill. Zaffirini said the legislation will benefit the students directly affected in the bill and also universities themselves by enabling them to attract the best students.

“If a student has offers from three universities offering health benefits and UT isn’t, they probably aren’t going to go to UT,” Zaffirini said.

Astronomy graduate student Chris Lindner received a National Science Foundation fellowship in 2009 that he said allowed him to quit working as a teaching assistant and focus on his research. This year, to continue to afford his health insurance, Lindner said he has had to return to his position as a full-time teaching assistant so he can continue to qualify for the University’s employee health insurance.

He said the University requires graduate students to have health insurance, and for him, the standard student health insurance option does not have enough prescription drug coverage for his family’s needs.

“Now I’m TA-ing even though I have this big fellowship, which is supposed to keep me from having to TA, so I can focus on my research,” Lindner said. “If the people with the fellowships are the best in their fields, we should be doing all we can to make sure they are well taken care of, and we’re doing what we can for them.”

Not all research fellows are ineligible for health care through the University. Their eligibility depends on whether or not they are officially employed by the University.

Julien Carter, associate vice president for Human Resource Services, said depending on the terms of individual fellowships, the University should not experience any meaningful financial burden if the legislation passes.

“Provided the funding source of the fellowship will authorize charges for the fellow’s health insurance coverage, we believe there would be no significant fiscal impact to the University,” Carter said.

He said the University welcomes the opportunity to extend health coverage to these fellows it previously could not. Some qualified researchers would turn down fellowship offers because taking them would mean they could not participate in the University’s health insurance, he said.

“We have wanted this for a few years now because we realized [students] end up turning down these sometimes prestigious fellowships for other options,” Carter said.

On the Lege

Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a six-part series examining how bills during the 82nd legislative session will impact students. A pre-abortion sonogram bill will head to the Senate floor for debate later this legislative session, after passing through the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs on Wednesday. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, proposed the legislation, which requires a physician to take a sonogram a minimum of 24 hours before an abortion. The only exception to the time frame is medical emergencies. The bill is on Gov. Rick Perry’s emergency items list, and the cost to implement the bill’s provisions will be minimal, according to the Legislative Budget Board, a joint committee that recommends appropriations for state agencies. Lawmakers and the media misunderstood the intent of the bill, Patrick said. It’s about a woman’s right to know about the risks and what the abortion procedure entails, he said. The sonogram bill requires the facility where the sonogram is performed to give printed materials to the patient describing the risks, the free pregnancy services available in the area and a comprehensive list of adoption agencies, the services they provide and how to contact them. “The bill will provide a high level of informed consent,” Patrick said in a statement released Wednesday. “It will ensure there are no barriers preventing women from receiving the information to which they are entitled for such a life-changing decision.” A new draft of the bill could give women seeking an abortion the option to refuse to view the results of their sonogram. The doctor, who would be required to check for the heartbeat, may allow the patient to listen if she chooses. “This bill clearly says a woman can choose not to hear,” Patrick said in Wednesday’s committee meeting. The legislation as originally drafted did not allow the patient to refuse the results of the sonogram, but instead advised her to “avert her eyes” during the process. Prior to Wednesday’s committee meeting, the bill mandated a two-hour waiting period before the sonogram and gave the abortion facility one week to notify the Department of State Health Services of the procedure. The committee revised the notification period to one month. The sonogram bill also requires the doctor to give “a simultaneous verbal explanation of the results of the sonogram images, including a medical description of the dimensions of the embryo or fetus, the presence of cardiac activity and the presence of external members and internal organs,” as written in the original draft. Critics of the bill, including Planned Parenthood, said Texas lawmakers should focus more on solving economic problems instead of attempting to become intimately involved in patient-doctor relations. “There’s a $27-billion budget shortfall, and a lot of Texans are looking for jobs and health insurance, or they’re worried about their local schools being closed,” said Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Sarah J. Wheat. “With these incredibly pressing issues, I think a big question a lot of Texans have is why aren’t legislators and the governor focused on solving those problems, instead of spending their time practicing medicine and getting intimately involved in private medical decisions.” Wheat said the abortion procedure has a long track record with state regulation. “This is a bill that puts politicians directly in the exam room,” Wheat said. “Sentimentally, this is a safe, legal medical procedure that is highly regulated and governed by numerous state laws.” Coalition for Life, an Austin organization that provides prayer vigils and sidewalk counseling outside of local abortion clinics, supports the legislation because it could result in fewer women choosing to have abortions, said Executive Director Elizabeth McClung. “We’re finding that women aren’t always given the option of seeing the ultrasound before they go through with the abortion,” McClung said. “Coming from the standpoint of looking out for what’s best for not only the mother but also the child that’s growing inside her womb, we fully support any legislation that’s trying to protect human life.” Because abortions are performed in privacy behind sterile clinic doors, many women aren’t aware of the stages of their baby’s development, she said, and requiring sonograms will allow them to make a more informed decision. “In getting that window into the womb, it’s sort of pulling the curtain back on what abortion is actually doing,” McClung said. “Educating women about what’s going on inside their womb with their baby really encourages women to choose life.” If the bill is approved by the Senate’s overall vote when it reaches the floor for debate, it will then be passed on to Perry for signing.

82nd Legislature

The Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs voted Wednesday to proceed with a pre-abortion sonogram bill after hearing testimony from supporters and opponents. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, authored the bill that requires women to go through a sonogram procedure and hear a description of the fetus as well as the heartbeat if it is audible. Seven of the committee’s nine members voted in favor of the bill. It will now go before the entire Senate. “What this bill does is remove the barrier that is placed in front of women now from getting the information they are entitled to,” Patrick said. The committee passed a committee substitute, meaning they made substantial changes to the original language. The bill now requires a 24-hour lapse between the sonogram and the abortion instead of a two-hour waiting period and includes a provision that allows women seeking abortions in cases of reported rape or incest or when the fetus has an irreversible abnormality to opt out of hearing or seeing anything. It now also gives abortion providers a month to inform the state of a performed procedure instead of only a week. Sarah J. Wheat, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, which opposes the bill, said policymakers should focus on strengthening the economy and combating the extreme budget shortfalls. “I think your average Texan is wondering why the senators are taking their very busy time directing what doctors need to do with their clients,” she said. Wheat said abortion is an intensely private decision that women make with their doctors, their families and their god. But Carol Everett, the founder and CEO of anti-abortion advocacy organization The Heidi Group and a former abortion clinic owner, disagrees. “Let’s not insult women,” Everett said. “I have had an abortion, and it has distressed me and destroyed my life for years.” She said she favors the bill because it protects the rights of women and allows them to gain adequate information on how abortion can affect their bodies. Dr. Margaret Thompson, an obstetrics and gynecology practitioner, testified at the hearing and said sonograms help obtain vital information in specific cases, but not every situation warrants the procedure. “This law requires that physicians perform an ultrasound even if it’s not in the physician’s judgment that it needs to be performed,” Thompson said. Dr. Michele Gilbert, another OB-GYN who testified, said the bill does not contribute anything to the ethical aspect of abortion procedures. She said they go over cautionary guidelines in a booklet given to every patient. “Many patients will say this information has been received plenty of times,” Gilbert said. She also said there is no good scientific evidence to prove that the procedures in the proposed bill can change a woman’s mind. “If someone wants to see the pictures, we always allow them to see the pictures,” Gilbert said. Every patient is unique, and every situation is also unique, said OB-GYN Dr. Matthew Romberg, who also testified at the hearing.