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An "Oops" That Lasted a Decade: Rick Perry and His Healthcare Legacy

Texas Governor Rick Perry announced today that he’s not running for reelection in 2014. And although most of us will remember him for his “oops” moment in the 2012 Republican primary debates—it’s right there in the first sentence of the Associated Press story about his departure—many Texans will remember their longest-serving governor quite another way: as the guy who absolutely decimated Texas’s health care system.

Yes, plenty of conservative governors have made a name for themselves by stunting their state’s health care systems, say, by rejecting the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. But things are particularly dire for the working poor in Texas, which has the greatest percentage of uninsured people in the United States. And Perry is particularly good at scaling back government intervention in the health care crisis plaguing the working poor in his state.  

So here’s a quick tour of the ways in which Texas will feel the effects of his 13-year tenure long after he’s left the governor’s mansion:

  • Perry never missed an opportunity to make drastic cuts to state-sponsored programs for the working poor. Such was his zeal that by his eleventh year in office, Wade Goodwyn reported for NPR, “Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican-controlled legislature have dropped hundreds of thousands of mostly poor and working-class Texans from the rolls of government-sponsored insurance like Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Nearly 6.5 million Texans are now uninsured even though the majority of them have full-time jobs.”
  • The coup-de-grace of these cuts came in 2011, when Perry approved a two-thirds cut to the state’s family planning budget. Within a year, more than 60 clinics—which everything from provided birth control to pap smears—had been forced to close. The unplanned pregnancies that are expected to result may cost the state up to $231 million.
  • Many conservative lawmakers tried to defund Planned Parenthood. Only Perry found a way to do so that withstood a federal court challenge. He did so by forfeiting the $200 million the state received each year to provide health services to poor Texas women—this, in a state where a quarter of all women are uninsured, and Planned Parenthood provided half of all services to low-income women.
  • Anti-choice legislation in Texas—like a mandatory ultrasound law that Rick Perry signed in 2011—might seem limited to the issue of abortion on its face. In fact, Perry’s pro-life partisanship frequently has ramifications for women’s health services. With Texas Senator Wendy Davis having tanked a raft of Perry-backed anti-abortion bills last month, Perry called a second special session of the legislature to pass those same bills. Regulations contained in the legislation would have the effect of shuttering five women’s health care clinics, for which abortions are only a small fraction of their services.
  • By rejecting the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, Perry lost Texas $100 billion in federal aid, and prevented 1.5 million uninsured Texans living below the poverty line from accessing health insurance.

Perry did make one notable contribution to women’s health care while he was in office—in 2007, he issued an executive order mandating that all girls entering 6th grade receive the Gardisil vaccine. Recently, one study found that this had the effect of slashing the teenage HPV infection rate in Texas by half. Gardisil, though, is manufactured by Merck—which donated nearly $400,000 to Perry and outfits that supported his gubernatorial campaigns. And when the pay-to-play move dampened Perry’s shot at the presidential nomination, Perry called his decision a mistake. Now that’s an “oops.”

Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.