Free flu clinic nixed over partisan complaints

Nothing says more about the routinely nasty depths American politics than this story.

In Houston, the city health department got money from the Robert Wood Johnson and Amerigroup Foundations, two charities much involved in health care, to provide free flu shots near polling places in medically underserved areas. This isn't uncommon. Some twenty other cities, in several states, are said to have similar "vote and vaccinate" programs (see for example, here). The idea is to go where the people who need the services are.

Nothing is simple anymore. Not even free flu shots for the poor. The right wingnut blogosphere and right wing whacko Talk Radio in Houston got on the case shortly after the program was announced a week ago Monday:

Local Republicans, who had scheduled an afternoon news conference on the vaccination issue before the mayor's announcement, accused [Mayor Bill] White of deliberately selecting early voting sites in Democratic strongholds in an attempt to gin up votes favorable to city propositions on Tuesday's ballot.

"I think the program was completely motivated by a plan to turn out Democratic voters," said Harris County Republican Chairman Jared Woodfill. (Houston Chronicle)

The free shots were limited to people over age 50 and not tied to voting. About 1300 people got vaccinated in the three days before Mayor White was forced to pull the plug for fear the city would be sued. It's illegal to offer any service or gift in exchange for voting.

In this case the Mayor checked with relevant officials, who it turns out are Republicans:

Before launching the program, Williams' staff consulted with Republican Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, the county's top election official, who offered support provided that the initiative complied with applicable laws.

Kaufman's spokesman, David Beirne, said erroneous media reports might have fueled the perception that voting was related to receiving something of value, which could violate the law. "It's not tied to the voting practice, which is a critical element," he said. "We did not see anything on its face to indicate that it would be a clear violation of election law."

Scott Haywood, a spokesman for Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, also a Republican, said in an e-mail that "there is nothing wrong with a health clinic being located at the same site that voting is taking place," provided that people weren't required to vote to get the service.

The Foundation grants required co-location with polling places in areas where people were less likely to get vaccinated. It was not the choice of the health department or the mayor. 1600 doses have now gone undelivered. It isn't unreasonable to say these political shenanigans might directly result in the death of some people.

As far as the Houston Chronicle was able to tell, the program didn't affect either turnout or voting:

Harold Dickey, 81, already had participated in that process by voting several days ago but missed out on a flu shot when he arrived at the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center on Wednesday about 10 minutes after White's order took effect.

"Well, that's just a bunch of so-and-so," Dickey said when told the vaccine program was closed because of accusations that it was politically motivated. "That's a hell of a thing to do."

"The shot wasn't tied to my vote in any way," he said.


Other voters at Sunnyside said they weren't even aware that vaccinations would be available when they voted.

Ida Gibson, 59, said "it's just ridiculous" for anyone to tie her vote to a shot. "It's not an incentive for me to come," she said.

OK. I'm hoping for a Democratic sweep today. So let's say the shoe were on the other foot, that some public health program providing a free and valuable service were held in a poor rural area that was heavily red. Am I confident some Democratic politician wouldn't cry foul? No, not really. That's the way things are today.

On the other hand, I'd hope enough of us would say that despite the possible advantage to opposition turnout this might provide, it is still a good thing to protect poor people from a potentially deadly disease. In Houston the Republican party is trying to less nasty by saying they'll provide $1000 for a post election flu clinic. Unfortunately that's not when the health department is likely to find the most people. And $1000 isn't a lot of cash to finance the personnel time and supplies needed for a flu clinic. Nice try. How about $20,000?

So if you haven't voted yet, do it. Preferably for a candidate of my choice. And if you haven't gotten your flu shot yet, do it. At least you'll be more likely to get what's promised -- a reasonable shot at protecting yourself against flu.


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At the risk of alienating Revere even more, I'll admit it, I am a registered Republican, and I did vote on my way in to work this morning. I walked straight into the polling place and waited in a line with three people in front of me, compared to the hour and a half wait behind over a hundred people and in the rain two years ago... but I digress. Even I find this story appalling. Shame on those Republicans who had this shut down! And kudos to Revere for pointing it out, and for mentioning that he wouldn't be too surprised that Democrats wouldn't act the same way if the roles were reversed. Politics has always had an ugly side, and it seems to just get worse and worse...

What has happened to a country whose concern is more for the outcome of voting than for the fact that hundreds of people may be saved from severe sickness and/or death? Lord (?) help us if the pendulum doesn't start swinging the other way. I really think our country needs to change direction before something more regrettable happens.

This just wouldn't be an issue in Australia, where I live. It is compulsory to register to vote, and to come to the polling booth (or alternative, eg pre-poll, postal) on election day. You are not obligated to mark your ballot and actually vote (you can pass it in unmarked, if you have an objection to voting) - but everyone has to show up, and you get fined if you don't.

On the other hand, we have the politics of elected officials spending up in their main constituencies, and not spending the money where it's actually needed (eg indigenous health programs)

I hope that the election over there boots out at least some of the worst bastards.

By attack rate (not verified) on 07 Nov 2006 #permalink

attack rate: problem is, as MiH has pointed out in another thread, the bastards that get kicked out are usually replaced by new bastards that are just as bad, if not worse ;-)

Okay, so I guess in the interest of the public health its okay to violate federal and state laws. Folks most laws relating to this kind of activity has been on the books for about 40 years now. Jim Crow laws etc were swept out in the 1960's and this was part of it. I am terribly sorry that the clinics were positioned in an effort to bring out the vote but its also patently illegal to do so. The Democrats are not stupid, but they will do just about anything to win an election. I have seen people getting 20 bucks for (lunch money) and a bus ride here in town just to go vote. Its vote buying and thats what this is.

What the hell. A shot at the doctors office would cost you about 40 bucks so the federal laws simply state that no person may offer and no person may accept any gratuity, payment, consideration of anykind to produce a vote in favor or in lieu of any candidate. It was simply vote buying and thats exactly what they got hammered on. Its not voter fraud. No one tried to vote twice, or have dead people voting. But they did violate the law. Sorry Revere, I hold the process pretty much on a high standard and the Dems knew it was going to land them in hot water. It also gave them the right to imply that the Republicans were disenfranchising them...again. Bull crap. They should start indicting everyone including Republicans and Independents that violate election laws. To boot I zipped that offer of post election flu shots off to a certain Senator from Tennessee that is a doctor and politely told him that this was ALSO a clear violation of the law to say they would do it afterwards.

The rules are there for everyone to follow. It either works for everyone or it doesnt work at all. Those same Democrats could have reached out and said they would give the shots at any Dem voter rally BEFORE the election. Wrong side of the fence on this one Revere. Healthcare is part of society, just as elections are. You wouldnt want me practicing medicine with a voter registration card in my pocket or holding out the carrot of healthcare if they would register as Republican. The implication from this particular post is that the Republicans were wrong in stopping it. Not a chance in that.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 08 Nov 2006 #permalink

Randy: Read the linked articles. Even the Republican officials say this doesn't violate the law. No goods or services were exchanged for a vote. The law is very clear.

This was an FEC opinion of having any group or agency in for profit or non profit action to provide anything during an election. Buckley v. Valeo. Rendered in January of this year. E.G.

"Although the Court has recognized that political contributions
are a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, the Court decided in Buckley
that they are speech by proxy that can be limited, in part because the contributor retains
other independent avenues of communication, which cannot be limited constitutionally.
Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976). If, at a candidate�s urging, an individual buys ten
vans and hires ten drivers to get-out-the-vote on election day, that is an expenditure of
funds for the purpose of influencing a federal election and will be treated as an in-kind
contribution by operation of section 441a(a)(7)(B)(i). The Commission may extensively
investigate van purchasers, that is, individuals engaged in this kind of independent
economic activity for ties to candidates and officeholders, with little concern of �chilling�
any fundamental constitutional right."

RWJ Foundation while commendable could have done it at Wal-Mart just as easily and since it was a FEDERAL election this would not stand the test because the City was behind it thereby giving an inference of public money support and facilities to do it. In addition folks, its not a good idea anyway because they didnt offer it in any place OTHER than heavily Democratic districts. Again, while I care who wins I have put Republican poll watchers out the door with a poliice escort when they have tried to challenge Democrats trying to vote legally. If the guy has what is required by law, he votes and I will defend that all the way to the grave. If he doesnt, then he he still votes but provisionally and then the election commissioners decide whether he/she is legal to vote.

The facilites for voting are paid for by law so that there is a division between church and state for those polling places, same with schools. You are there to vote, not to go to a health care clinic during a federal election. State laws vary but RWJ foundation is well known for its political leanings and it isnt Republican or Independent.. When you have the implication that something is sanctioned then you have a problem. when public money is paying for a collocated facility. Note that this was 11 months before the election when this decision was rendered.

They could have shown up with jabs at senior citizens homes, bingo parlors, or gone down street by street but no lets do it at the polling places. Tthis was decidedly illegal under Federal law. The Republican Atty Gen doesnt make the call in Federal elections. 12 years ago the democratic election commission chairman here stood nose to nose against a certain black Congressman who was trying to skew the results without backup of Memphis's first black mayor. He too was offered a trip down to the county jail for his intereference and to this day he stands in my line of respect as he is still a commissioner and like me if it aint in the books then its not open for interpretation.

Interpretation is done by courts and we had better get away from this kind of voting process. We will have courts deciding elections and they up til now have kept hands off. RWJ Foundation regardless of conviction should not be in a voting place to "get the vote out" especially if the intent is to get people vaccinated. Might be well intentioned but poorly thought out. Next is if you show up, McDonalds will give you a burger or a player option in the spring. There ought to be a way to get people vaccinated and I fully recommend that if they can get them to a rally then by all means vaccinate. I am all for that.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 08 Nov 2006 #permalink