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The Sequester, Tourism and Cancer

Publication: Longview News-Journal, Longview

Once again, our elected leaders in Washington — this time through their inability to agree on how to spend our tax dollars — have shown the ability to make us laugh and cry. The sequester-related cuts range from the trivial to the tragic, from spending we might never miss to spending that can make a life-or-death difference.

Let’s look at some, starting with the latter.

The Washington Post recently wrote: “Cancer clinics across the country have begun turning away thousands of Medicare patients, blaming the sequester budget cuts.”

Austinite Adrienne Arnold, whose 82-year-old mom Bettie Carrington is a nonsmoker with lung cancer, recently wrote this to Texas’ U.S. senators: “Please exempt cancer drugs for Medicare patients from the sequester cuts.”

Arnold, a state employee, told Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz her mom’s supplemental Medicare covers her treatments, but she’s concerned about folks without that coverage. “The question remains how can our government be so calloused ... and make these types of reductions, hence policy, for the beautiful people of our country who have been productive members of society all their lives?” she asked.

At Texas Oncology, where Carrington is treated, Dr. J. Russell Hoverman, director of quality, said no sequester-related reductions in treatment are scheduled “at this time” but that the “reduction in Medicare reimbursement for most cancer treatment medicines is significant and is not sustainable.”

Texas Oncology, with more than 135 offices in Texas and Oklahoma, sees 86,000 new patients each year. The National Cancer Institute says Medicare covers 45 percent of the nation’s cancer care costs.

Cornyn and Cruz replied to Arnold with emails promising to respond “as quickly as possible.”

Last week, the sequester ax fell on the Navy’s Blue Angels aerial acrobatics team, now grounded for the rest of the year because of the cuts. Previously grounded by sequestration were the Air Force Thunderbirds flight team and the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team. Sure, we can live without this stuff, but shouldn’t such cuts come as a result of action instead of inaction?

Sequestration’s direct — and trivial — impact on me came April 7 at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. Our small group looked forward to the National Park Service guided tour of the home in which King was born (did you know he was Michael Luther King Jr. at birth?) and lived until age 12.

We were told there would be a guided “walk-through” instead of a guided tour. Can’t be much of a difference, I thought. Wrong.

A pleasant park ranger outside the house told us a bit about its history. Then, a much less pleasant ranger led us on a blur of a walk-through that started at the front door and ended about five minutes later as we were shown out the back door. Our ranger (We’ll call her Ranger Ratched) exuded an I-don’t-want-to-be-here aura compounded by an and-I-don’t-want-you-to-be-here-either aura.

The walk-through made for a moving experience. I think we were moving at about 70 mph. I might have zoned out for a few seconds, but, for me, the takeaway was that young King had lived in the house with some other people.

I learned the truth about the walk-through down the block in a historic building where generations have gone to seek the truth. A ranger at Ebenezer Baptist Church told me the walk-throughs, instead of the more comprehensive guided tours, were necessitated by the sequestration that cost the MLK Historic Site one employee.

At tour’s end, I was troubled by this thought: Did I really just go through King’s childhood home or is it something about which I have a dream?

Now I’m troubled by this sequestration thought: It’s one thing to shortcut a tour and shorten the season for some precision pilots. Shortchanging cancer patients, however, is another thing.

We can argue about what should be in the federal budget. But can there be an argument against the notion that the sequestration — budgeting by inaction — is something less than our nation’s finest moment?

- Ken Herman writes for the Austin American-Statesman.

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