Judge Faults Texas for Health Problem

As Al Gore bashes George W. Bush on health care, a federal judge has ruled that Texas is failing to adequately care for poor children — providing new ammunition for the vice president to use against his rival.

The court said earlier this month that Texas has failed to live up to a 1996 agreement to make major changes in its Medicaid system, and ordered the state to improve problems with medical coverage by October.

Among other points in his ruling, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice said in his Aug. 14 ruling that the state failed to inform families of nearly 1 million children enrolled in Medicaid about benefits they could have collected.

Justice also criticized the state’s efforts to save money by putting Medicaid patients into managed-care plans and found the state was not adequately providing dental care, regular checkups or transportation to doctors for low-income families.

Problems Predate Bush

Bush defended the efforts of his administration, telling reporters tonight in Cincinnati that he is “making a concerted effort” to provide health care for children in Texas.

“Ours is a compassionate state,” Bush said. “We want to make sure that children available for our programs are signed up.”

Bush went on to blame federal regulations for holding up his state’s efforts to make progress.

Mike Jones, a spokesman for the Texas governor’s office, said Bush should not be blamed for problems that started before he was even elected to run the state. Those shortfalls began under a Democratic administration, Jones said. In fact, he says, Bush has pushed through recent improvements to the Texas health care system.

“Just last year, Governor Bush added another $1.8 billion in new health care initiatives, many of them aimed at the poor and elderly in our state,” Jones said.

Susan Zinn, lead attorney on the class-action lawsuit that resulted in the 1996 agreement, acknowledged the Bush administration has made some improvements, but said it has still fallen short.

“The current administration has been in charge of this program for several years now, and even though there have been some improvements, the judge found that the program is still sorely lacking,” Zinn said.

Bad Timing

In any event, the ruling comes at an awkward moment for the Texas governor as he runs for president on the Republican ticket. All week, his Democratic opponent, Gore, has been blasting Bush, accusing him of being vague on the details of how he would fix health-care problems for the rest of the nation.

And Gore has made providing universal health care for children one of the centerpieces of his campaign. The Gore campaign was quick to pounce on the ruling as evidence Bush is putting more time into airing campaign ads about health care than trying to fix problems in Texas.

“While Governor Bush brags on television, kids in his state are going without health care because of his negligence,” Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway said in a statement e-mailed to reporters. “Governor Bush either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about children’s health in Texas. If he did, he would have followed the lead of other Republican governors who have actually worked to help uninsured children in their states.”

The Bush campaign at first dismissed the ruling as the product of an “an activist judge, who has legislated from the bench for years.”

Justice, a Democrat appointed to the bench in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, is revered in some circles for his decisions on racial segregation, education for immigrants and prison conditions.

The state’s attorney general said Texas would appeal the decision.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.