|Rep. John Zerwas, MD|
Two of the first two lists that were published, Texas Monthly's "Best and Worst Legislators 2011" and Capitol Insider's "Top Ten Legislators," both heaped lots of credit on the lawmakers who ran their respective chambers' budget committees: State Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) and Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie). But some of their brightest praise shone on one of the four physicians -- and TMA members -- in the 2011 legislature. Those of us who've watched Rep. John Zerwas, MD (R-Simonton) over the years aren't at all surprised at what the raters had to say about him.
Let's start with Texas Monthly:
by Nate Blakeslee and Paul Burka
JOHN ZERWAS R–Richmond
As corny as it sounds, John Zerwas is the closest thing the Legislature has to a saint. His job this session, as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the health care section of the budget, was to listen, in meeting after meeting, to the testimony of people who depend on services facing deep cuts. A typical hearing found the room filled with supplicants in wheelchairs, clad in ponchos as a symbolic plea for lawmakers to use the Rainy Day Fund.
They had come to the right place. Zerwas was one of the few House Republicans who unequivocally supported using the fund to cover shortfalls in health care spending, despite criticism from self-anointed fiscal watchdog Michael Quinn Sullivan. “I think that most of my colleagues are hearing the same thing that I’m hearing from my constituents,” Zerwas told the Fort Bend Herald, “and this is, it’s raining out there and this is money we have specifically saved for this purpose. We expect the lawmakers up here to put it to the highest and best use that they can. And I don’t think the highest and best use is sitting in a savings account when we have the amount of needs out there that are not going to be met otherwise.”
Health care debates are particularly challenging because they tend to inflame the passions of the true believers on the far right, but here Zerwas’s training as a physician serves him well. He never engages in ideological battles, never panics. He just argues cause and effect, as a man of science is trained to do. If we don’t raise provider rates, Members, then doctors and nurses will not be able to afford to treat patients. What separates Zerwas from other members is that he uses his time on the House floor to speak from his medical experience. His purpose is to educate, and in a session as hellish as this one, that was grounds for beatification.
June 15, 2011
"Top Ten Legislators"
John Zerwas / Texas House / Houston Republican
You could search Texas history all day and it would be hard to find a state lawmaker who's not a committee chair with the kind of sparkling reviews that have been lavished on Dr. John Zerwas for his performance at the Capitol this year.
The third-term representative who represents three counties on the edge of the Houston area was tapped to lead the Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services at a time when those programs appeared to be on the verge of draconian devastation amid the worst state budget crisis in two dozen years. While there would be no elixir for the budget-cutting fever, Zerwas helped his colleagues understand the potential consequences and repercussions that an unbridled chopping block approach could bring to the areas of the budget that fell into his jurisdiction and expertise. That had a mitigating effect on the budget ax on Article II in the short term. But Zerwas tackled his job with one eye on immediate concerns and one on the future with a proactive mentality that he hopes will save the state money down the road without adversely effecting the health care delivery system in the state. It was a bold approach that didn't come without risks in a Legislature that's preferred the instant gratification of band-aids over cures that come with no guarantees.
Zerwas' biggest single splash arguably came last week as the sponsor of legislation that the House approved in special session in a move that's designed to have almost $500 million by privatizing Medicaid managed care in South Texas. The measure that was authored by State Senator Jane Nelson would create a Texas Institute of Health Care Quality and Efficiency that would link reimbursements for medical professions to the outcomes of the care and treatment they provide. Democrats fought the measure on the grounds that it would reduce state spending on children's health insurance, boost co-payments for Medicaid patients and run the risk of cutting payments to doctors who'd be inclined to refuse to take Medicaid patients as a result. Critics contended that the Medicaid privatization plan would compound the pain from a reduction in hospital reimbursements that the Legislature had already endorsed this year. But Zerwas, a relatively low-key lawmaker who reasons with his colleagues instead of pressing, browbeating or trying to scare them, persuaded the House to embrace the novel approach in a vote that approved it along party lines.
Zerwas, an anesthesiologist, wasn't distracted this time around by the need to save lives like he'd done two years ago when a House colleague suffered a near fatal heart attack on an elevator during a late night meeting in the lower chamber. But Zerwas had one of the most successful sessions in recent memory largely as a result of his ability to gain the trust of fellow lawmakers whose political futures could live or die on the votes they cast in the most extreme budget conditions that the Legislature has faced since 1987. He accomplished that with relative ease on the strength of his expertise, his commitment and the courage and will that it took to lead the fight in an arena where an increasing number of lives are on the line each day.