SAN MARCOS, Texas (Nexstar) — Gov. Greg Abbott announced seven “emergency items” in his biannual “State of the State” address on Thursday, paving the way for the legislature to give early momentum to bills relating to his priorities.

These “emergency items” are now exempt from constitutional delays in the legislature. Normally, lawmakers are not allowed to hear or pass bills until March 10 — 60 days into the 140-day legislative session. But bills relating to the governor’s “emergency” topics may begin to move through the legislative process immediately.

Abbott delivered perhaps his most full and unequivocal endorsement of “school choice” to a general audience to date. He introduced three families he said have had concerns over remote learning and “woke agendas.”

“That must change this year,” he said. “The way to do that is with school choice, through state-funded Education Savings Accounts.”

Education savings accounts can have more flexibility than school vouchers. Traditional vouchers allow parents to use public funding to pay tuition at a private school. Education savings accounts also use public funds, but beyond tuition, parents can use the money to pay for other approved educational expenses, like tutoring or online courses.

Abbott said he wants to expand an existing program that created education savings accounts for special needs students. He said doing so would give parents more say in their child’s education, without taking resources away from public schools.

“To be perfectly clear, under this school choice program, all public schools will be fully funded for every student,” Abbott said, before declaring “education freedom” an emergency item.

Democrats and Republicans alike have heavily criticized the use of state money to subsidize private education, also referred to as school vouchers. Last session, 115 representatives in the Texas House voted for an amendment that banned state money from going towards school vouchers or education savings accounts.

abbott waves on stage
Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his State of the State address Feb. 16, 2023 in San Marcos (Governor’s Office Photo)

“Money appropriated by this Act may not be used to pay for or support a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for nonpublic primary or secondary education,” stated Amendment 84 that became part of the 87th session’s budget bill.

The new chair of the House Public Education Committee, Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Lampasas, voted for the amendment.

But after stacking the public education committee with legislators who have previously expressed opposition to the idea of private school vouchers, Speaker of the House Dade Phelan said it is not out of the question for Texas’ lower chamber.

In a one-on-one interview with Capitol Correspondent Monica Madden Wednesday, the Beaumont Republican shied away from expressing outward support for using taxpayer money for private education but didn’t rule it out completely.

“The appointment of that committee was not reflective of that. There’s members who are interested in having those discussions,” he said. “It’s going to come down to whether or not it has the votes in the Texas House and the past that has not.”

In the Texas Democrats’ response to the Governor’s address, party members criticized “so-called school choice” as a means of “defunding public education” and sending tax dollars to support private education.

The rebuttal included perspective from a Lubbock ISD teacher who left the profession after she said Republicans placed a “gag order” on teachers and related school curriculum. She said for rural districts like hers, school vouchers would destroy them.

On the topic of education, State Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, addressed his proposed $15,000 pay increase for Texas teachers. He said he filed the legislation so teachers can continue in their professions and educate the next generation of Texans.

“We have about $59 billion in our combined checking and savings account,” State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said, referencing the record budget surplus and the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund. “If the Governor wants to talk about anything, he should talk about bringing more money to education,” he added.

“If vouchers are his dream, then the Democratic caucus will be his nightmare,” Martinez Fischer said.

Texas doesn’t penalize most senior living facilities with confirmed abuse. Why?

In Billy Mullens’ Central Austin home, green plants of all shapes and sizes line the living room floor, where the light streams in from the window.

More greenery fills the patio outside, but he points to one potted plant in particular — describing how it grew from a single clipping off a plant that belonged to his mother, before she passed away last summer. Her obituary called her an “avid gardener” with some of the “finest and best-tended” gardens.

“She taught me how to care for things – to take care of them,” Billy said.

After his mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Billy said his father began caring for her, instead — working hard to make her feel comfortable and safe. However, as her disease progressed, the family decided she needed around-the-clock care from trained professionals. They ultimately chose an assisted living facility that offers memory care, near his father’s Austin area home.

“‘It seems like the right place where we want to trust somebody to take care of Mom,’” Billy remembered saying at the time. “She started referring to that as her home, so that was a relief to me.”

Still, Billy’s father struggled with the change, so they decided to install a camera in her room for him to be able to check on his wife on the days he could not be there with her.

“I’m so glad we did that because if we hadn’t had that camera, there is no way that we would have known what happened to Mom,” Billy said.

  • Billy Mullens fills up a water canister to take to his garden. He said his mother was known for having the best-tended gardens and his plants remind him of the kind of caregiver she was to their family. (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)
  • Billy Mullens waters the plants in his garden, giving special care to the plant he propagated from his mother's garden. (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)
  • A photo of Billy Mullens' parents in his Austin home. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

One night in March 2022, Billy’s father opened the camera application to check on his wife.

The footage, which the family asked KXAN to watch, showed a male staff member bringing her into her room, closing the door and then — as was later described in a police report — sexually assaulting her.

“I saw it the next day and was disgusted and horrified and furious. But I cannot even — I can’t even think — I cannot imagine what my dad was feeling when he saw that happen to his wife, when he was already uncomfortable with not being there to protect her,” he said.  “She was hurt, you know? She was violated,” Andrea Earl with AARP Texas said. 

			Billy Mullens watches the Ring camera footage from his mother's assisted living facility, showing what was later described in a police report as her being sexually assaulted by a staffer. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Billy Mullens watches the Ring camera footage from his mother’s assisted living facility, showing what was later described in a police report as her being sexually assaulted by a staffer. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

According to Billy, the family called police immediately. Arrest records show the staffer was arrested by Bee Cave police, booked into the Travis County jail and charged with felony aggravated sexual assault.

The assisted living facility — which had hired and employed him at the time of the incident — was given no citations, according to records from the state agency in charge of regulating these kinds of facilities, the Health and Human Services Commission, or HHSC.

The documents show that when HHSC surveyors came out two days later, the facility had suspended the staffer, checked on Mullens every 15 minutes and conducted “safety surveys” with the other residents. 

HHSC noted the facility had conducted a legally-required criminal background check and had checked the staffer’s eligibility with the state’s Employee Misconduct Registry before hiring him.

The Mullens family still has questions.

“How could this possibly happen? That you would take our loved one, charge us a lot of money to take care of her, and then not take care of her?” Billy asked. 

The Texas Administrative Code lays out specific requirements for operating Texas skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and other long-term care facilities that offer a daytime activity or health services to older Texans: everything from having functioning fire alarms, to storing food properly, to keeping a home “free from” neglect and abuse.  

HHSC surveyors and inspectors are tasked with responding to allegations of abuse, as well as dozens of other potential violations of the code.

When HHSC finds a facility is out of compliance with these state regulations, it can cite a facility or take further enforcement action, such as calling for the facility to pay a monetary penalty or suspending or revoking its license to operate.

KXAN reviewed nearly four years of abuse allegations from long-term care facilities as well as daily activities and health services facilities, revealing more than 3,000 cases where the state found evidence substantiating the abuse. However, facilities in more than 70% of the substantiated abuse cases from January 2019 to September 2022 did not face any citation for that abuse.  

The agency defines “substantiated but not cited” cases as times when the investigation determined the allegation did occur, but by the time a surveyor had arrived, the facility had “taken the actions necessary to correct and prevent the deficient practices” — meaning it had come into compliance with state regulations.

Facility operators are required to have systems in place to identify and respond to non-compliance as it is discovered, a spokesperson for HHSC told KXAN in an email.

“These systems, when functioning properly, ensure that problems are quickly identified and resolved in an efficient manner even before investigators and/or surveyors arrive,” the spokesperson wrote.

Industry sources tell KXAN the goal of these policies is keeping residents safe by correcting issues immediately.

According to state logs of substantiated abuse complaints and incidents in long-term care facilities from January 2019 to September 2022, nearly one-third of the facilities were cited as being out-of-compliance with state regulations when surveyors arrived. ClickTap the pie chart to explore how the state agency categorized its response and to see the outcome of each category. Data source: Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Graphic by Christopher Adams, KXAN

Andrea Earl with AARP Texas said she understands there are cases where the state cannot — and should not – hold facilities liable for a bad actor. She said she also recognizes the importance of correcting issues as they occur.

Still, she said the senior advocacy group has been tracking widespread issues with the quality of care at Texas long-term care facilities for years.

“We understand things happen in nursing home facilities; we understand that mistakes happen. However, no slap on the wrist — nothing — is unacceptable,” Earl said

She said families already have a lot of “homework” to do when vetting a facility and deciding to move their loved one there, without worrying about accountability — or a potential lack thereof — in cases of substantiated abuse.

“Any abuse case at any of these facilities is unacceptable. It is really Texas’s job to draw firm line when it comes to the safety of residents. It should never be on the family to have this burden of assuring safety,” she said.

It’s one of the reasons AARP Texas asked lawmakers to consider requiring more transparency on how facilities are spending their money: “making sure funds are going to the direct care of residents, rather than the pockets of the facility themselves.”

Kevin Warren, President of the Texas Health Care Association, represents and advocates on behalf of several hundred skilled nursing facilities in the state. He said the top priority of Texas nursing facilities is residents’ health and safety.

“Protecting residents from situations of abuse, neglect and exploitation (ANE) are of utmost importance,” he said in a statement to KXAN.  “Beyond this responsibility that facility leadership and staff take on, there are regulatory and reporting requirements in place at state and federal levels.”

After the alleged incident is reported to the state for investigation, Warren noted that facilities themselves further investigate these kinds of allegations. Then, they report their own investigation findings and outcomes, in tandem with the state’s on-site investigations.

The skilled nursing industry has additional reporting requirements, as it is also regulated at the federal level by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — unlike assisted living and other facility types licensed by HHSC.

“Nursing facility providers implement protocols and procedures to not only prevent these types of situations but to detect if an allegation or concern of abuse, neglect or exploitation is identified,” he said in the statement.

The number of incidents and complaints about overall violations “soared” during the pandemic, according to HHSC’s most recent regulatory report on Long-term Care, released in March 2022. The spike came amid an already increasing workload for staff over the last decade, the report said.

During fiscal year 2021, surveyors with HHSC visited its licensees more than 28,000 times, marking a nearly 50% increase in visits from the year before the pandemic, fiscal year 2018.

For context, abuse and neglect violations did not rank among the most common citations doled out by the agency in fiscal year 2021; violations for policies involving infection control, food handling and sprinkler systems raked in the most citations among skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, according to the report.

The agency prioritizes its response to complaints and incidents based on the severity and urgency of the allegations, its spokesperson said.

First, intake staff collects information about the allegation. Then, staff with the Regulatory Services Complaint and Incident Intake division, or CCI, decide on a priority categorization for the complaint.

For example, if there was reason to believe the threat to residents was still active, HHSC policies say surveyors or investigators would arrive within 24 hours of the state becoming aware of an incident.

Meanwhile, if the state believes “serious harm” occurred, but the threat was no longer active, it could be as long as 14 days before the state has to go out and investigate.

For cases of more “minimal harm,” the investigation or survey might take place during HHSC’s next on-site visit — meaning the time period could be even lengthier.

When reviewing logs of substantiated abuse allegations from long-term care facilities over the last nearly four years, KXAN investigators found the majority of the highest-priority cases did result in citations, while lower-priority cases did not — despite serious harm occurring in those incidents.

The state cited around 70% of Priority 1 cases, when HHSC arrived on or before 24 hours after becoming aware of the incident.

Meanwhile, it cited around 30% of Priority 2 cases, where serious harm occurred but the threat was not believed to be ongoing.

HHSC categorized Mullens’ case as Priority 2.

In an email to KXAN, a spokesperson for the agency said, “HHSC is concerned about every allegation brought forward, regardless of its priority.”

The spokesperson also said that family, or anyone with additional information about an allegation that could change its priority, should report it to the agency.

KXAN asked whether the agency would be able to respond more quickly — and categorize more complaints as Priority 1 — by staffing more surveyors and investigators. The spokesperson responded that the prioritization of cases was not dependent on agency staffing levels. They explained CCI, which determines the priority categorizations, was a separate division of the agency from the one that manages surveyors and inspectors, so categorizations would not change if HHSC had more surveyors and investigators.

When surveyors and investigators arrive on-site, they can check personnel files, policies and procedures, previous abuse and neglect investigations, accident reports and a list of other facility documentation, according to state intake forms KXAN obtained and reviewed.

These forms reveal they can also conduct “observation rounds” and interviews with staff or residents to ensure the deficient practices were corrected or prevented.

A spokesperson for the agency added its surveyors conduct two separate investigations: one into whether the abuse occurred and another into whether the facility followed all relevant regulations. These include having sufficient staffing levels, training staff on how to prevent, identify, and report abuse and neglect, reporting any incidents to HHSC as required by law, and conducting the required background checks.

Austin attorney J.T. Borah said, despite these steps, he hears the same concerns from families who decide to sue a facility in civil court over the treatment of their loved ones: “I still haven’t found out what happened. I don’t know that anyone was held accountable, and I’m afraid this is going happen to someone else.”

Borah said he deals with abuse cases far less frequently than neglect cases. With allegations of neglect, he said he can often prove how broad patterns of understaffing or poor hiring practices affected the quality of care at a facility, leading to neglect.

“But it also sets up the possibility for abuse to take place, too, because there’s just no supervision going on,” he said.

He agrees with Earl of AARP that facilities should not be held liable in every abuse case. Still, he said he hears from families who are worried about hidden harm in the system, beyond the initial “threat” or the one incident.

“If the person is removed from the facility, then there’s some level of comfort that the family knows, ‘OK, at least that person’s not going to hurt someone in that facility,’” he said. “So, we get the change we want initially, because they fired this person. But the issue, the real issue is, did they change the way that they do business? Right? Did they change the way that they hired people? Did they change the way they train people? Do they change the way they supervise people?”

Carmen Tilton, Vice President of Public Policy at the Texas Assisted Living Association, said its members have a responsibility to deliver “quality care in a safe environment” to residents and families.

“Any tragedy that takes place in a community is one that we wish didn’t happen,” she said in a statement to KXAN.

In addition to state surveyors and inspectors, Tilton noted that ombudsmen and other local health and emergency officials conduct scheduled and unscheduled visits to these facilities “as often as they want to be there” to ensure operators are meeting the state’s standards.

Tilton pointed to other safeguards, such as legally-required criminal background checks and other screenings for staff. She said families and residents can put cameras in their rooms. Plus, facility staff could be held criminally liable for failing to report any suspected case of abuse or neglect at the community, Tilton added.

She went on to say, “Assisted living communities take safety seriously. Residents have choices when they select a community, and we encourage anyone looking for a community to ask questions about the steps a community takes to keep residents safe.”

Billy Mullens said he wants an even closer look at how long-term care facilities hire and vet employees, as well as industry policies and protocols for preventing abuse. For example, he wonders whether staff members should be allowed to close the doors to a resident’s room or be alone with them, and how much supervision or oversight staff receive.

“We had a camera, but a lot of the rooms in that place don’t. I don’t know how many people he cared for that night, the night before, the week before, the month before. Other facilities he’s been employed at? That I don’t know,” he said, of the man charged with his mother’s assault.

The case against him is pending in the Travis County courts. KXAN is not naming him or the facility involved in this case, to focus on the system as a whole.

			three people smile at the camera

A photo of Billy Mullens and his parents (Courtesy Billy Mullens)

Billy’s family moved his mom to another facility after the incident. They put up another camera — this time with a sign reading, “surveillance in progress.” He said his mom seemed calmer and more at ease there, even as her condition worsened. She passed away a few months later, in July 2022.

His family made the decision to sue the facility where the incident occurred.

“We’d like them to feel a financial penalty for not having taken care of my mom the way that they should have,” he said. “Also, and probably more importantly than that is, we’d like to see change. We’d like to help be agents of change.”

‘Dangerous to be old,’ How can Texas prevent abuse in long-term care facilities?

Carl Sherman has spent time walking the halls of Texas nursing homes and assisted living facilities. As the former mayor of DeSoto, he made it a priority to go to around three facilities a week to visit with constituents.

“When I go by their room, they’re sitting in their chair, looking out the window and just looking at cars pass by,” he said. “Nobody’s going by there and saying, ‘You used to be a doctor or used to be a nurse or used to work at the post office. You were relevant, you know, to my life.’ Now, it’s as though we just don’t have time.”

In his current role as the state representative for the same area, he tries to keep these residents’ concerns in mind.

He and other Dallas-area lawmakers are particularly attuned to issues facing older adults and their safety — not just those living in long-term care facilities regulated by the state — after a string of suspected murders in independent senior living communities in North Texas over the last few years.

Last fall, Billy Chemirmir, 49, was convicted in two of the murders; he’s facing indictments in 22 murder cases, in total.

Several bills have been filed to address the dangers unearthed through the case, including one that would require background checks for staff in less-regulated, independent senior housing.

Background checks, state inspections and other safeguards are written into Texas Administrative Code and required of assisted living and skilled nursing facilities regulated by the Health and Human Services Commission, or HHSC. But Sherman said he believes Texas could still do more to protect residents in these long-term care facilities, too.

  • Rep. Carl Sherman delivering supplies and visiting long-term care facilities during the pandemic (Photo provided by: Rep. Sherman's staff)
  • Rep. Carl Sherman delivering supplies and visiting long-term care facilities during the pandemic (Photo provided by: Rep. Sherman's staff)
  • Rep. Carl Sherman delivering supplies and visiting long-term care facilities during the pandemic (Photo provided by: Rep. Sherman's staff)

KXAN brought Sherman the concerns of a family whose mother was at the center of a state sexual assault investigation in her Austin area assisted living facility.

In August, her son Billy Mullens sat down with KXAN Investigator Avery Travis to share his frustration, after the family’s Ring camera caught footage of a staff member appearing to sexually assault her in her room.

“She was hurt, you know, she was violated,” Mullens said.

Patient safety advocate Ware Wendall said his group, Texas Watch, has been tracking issues with quality long-term care in the state for years. He calls it a state where it’s “dangerous to be old.”

Wendall points to low ratings for Texas facilities from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which regulates skilled nursing facilities, in particular.

He said many advocates believe the for-profit structure of many corporate-owned Texas facilities can lead to cutting corners, through understaffing or a lack of on-site supervision.

“It shouldn’t be this way, but it’s very predictable because we have these laws on the books that have loopholes in favor of nursing homes and other corporations that are going to prioritize, again, their profits over the safety of their patients,” he said. “You have to make danger unprofitable in this state.”

A national review published in 2022 called “Staff-to-resident abuse in nursing homes: a scoping review” stated that an “imbalance between excessive demands [on staff] and coping resources may increase the risk of abuse.”

The researchers noted that among the cases in the studies they reviewed, sexual abuse constituted a small percentage of the total cases. Neglect cases or other types of inadequate care accounted for a larger percentage of the cases reviewed.

		Patient safety advocate Ware Wendall believes loopholes in the law allow for hidden harm in the Texas system that's supposed to protect seniors. (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)

Patient safety advocate Ware Wendall believes loopholes in the law allow for hidden harm in the Texas system that’s supposed to protect seniors. (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)

Wendall acknowledges there are instances where operators cannot — under the current system — be held liable for the actions of an employee if they conducted the necessary background checks and hiring processes. However, he believes the operators have a duty to go above and beyond when it comes to the environment they create and by vetting these caregivers.

“Nursing home operators should be responsible under the law for what happens at their facilities,” he said. “They have control over who they hire, who they’re putting into contact with our loved ones.”

The state requires facility operators to have systems in place to respond to and correct any violations — including abuse — as they are discovered, according to a spokesperson for HHSC.

The regulatory agency does not cite facilities if they have already come back into compliance with the regulations — by correcting and preventing the problem — when its investigators or surveyors arrive. The spokesperson said if the facilities’ systems are working “properly,” problems are addressed and corrected “quickly,” for the safety of the residents.

KXAN investigators reviewed state logs of abuse allegations in long-term care facilities from January 2019 to September 2022. Of the cases where the state found evidence of abuse, facility operators were only cited 30% of the time. The majority of cases were labeled “substantiated but not cited,” meaning the facility had corrected the problem at the time of the investigation.

However, in cases where the home was cited by the agency, KXAN found even fewer instances where the operator had to pay a monetary penalty.

For example, in fiscal year 2021, HHSC logs show more than 250 abuse cases where facilities were cited for deficiencies at the time of the investigation. Meanwhile, HHSC imposed 223 monetary penalties for all kinds of violations — not just abuse — during the same time frame against skilled nursing, assisted living and day activity and health services facilities, according to its yearly regulatory report.

Each penalty imposed by HHSC ranged in cost from $250 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, the report shows in many cases these facilities ultimately owed nothing, after appealing their case.

			A photo of Billy Mullens’ parents in his Austin home. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

A photo of Billy Mullens’ parents in his Austin home. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Mullens’ mother’s assault allegation was substantiated, but the facility was not cited. HHSC classified and responded to this incident as a Priority 2 — meaning the state determined serious harm had occurred, but the threat was not “ongoing,” as law enforcement had removed the alleged perpetrator and the facility had checked on other residents. KXAN is not naming the suspect or the facility involved in this case, in order to focus on the system as a whole.

Wendall said this case raises concerns for families about what other serious cases may be hiding in the enforcement data, leaving systemic issues with hiring or vetting staff potentially unaddressed.

“We need the state to take that seriously and to pursue that immediately — not to downgrade it,” he said. “We need real enforcement, not slaps on the wrist — $1,000 here or $5,000 there — but meaningful penalties.”

A spokesperson for HHSC told KXAN the facility in Mullens case had conducted a criminal background check on the staffer, as well as checking his eligibility to work with the state’s Employee Misconduct Registry before he was hired. HHSC has since referred this person to that list of individuals permanently barred from working in any long-term care facility statewide.

The spokesperson said surveyors are also looking to determine whether a facility had sufficient staffing levels and had trained those staff on how to prevent, identify and report abuse and neglect.

In the past, long-term care industry leaders and advocates have told KXAN — and lawmakers — facility operators need more resources to care for residents, not fewer.

For example, in an interview last year, Kevin Warren, the President of the Texas Health Care Association, or THCA, pointed out a gap in how much it costs to provide daily care for residents and the current Medicaid reimbursement amount. THCA represents skilled nursing facilities. Its website states the gap in funding “impacts quality care, contributes to staffing issues and an inability to maintain modern facilities,” which is why it is asking lawmakers to address it.

Wendall and other patient advocates, such as Andrea Earl with AARP Texas, argue any funding or assistance from the legislature should potentially come with strings attached.

Earl said AARP Texas is urging lawmakers to require even more clear, public reporting of who owns these facilities and how they spent their funds.

“Making sure that those funding dollars are going to staffing — and quality staffing care,” she said.

Registered nurses, certified nurse aides, and other facility staff walk the halls of the facility every day and are directly responsible for the care of these residents.

It’s a physically and emotionally demanding job, Lori Porter, founder of the National Association of Health Care Assistants, told KXAN in an interview last January.

“You are the first line of information, the first line of care,” Porter said at the time. “You often feel like you are the most important in the room but are rarely seen as that.”

Last summer, Warren described the struggle of filling these positions at a legislative committee hearing. He told lawmakers the industry was competing for quality staff with other healthcare professions.

By last fall, a report from Texas Health and Human Services showed at least 60 nursing facilities in the state’s 1,200 had permanently closed — citing the effects of the pandemic, inflation, staff burnout and low Medicaid reimbursement rates.

This legislative session, Rep. Stephanie Klick has already filed a bill calling for student loan repayment for certain nurses employed by a long-term care facility, to try and address what Warren has called in past interviews “the most significant challenge” he has seen face the long-term care industry during his time in it.

But when it comes to abuse cases specifically, in a recent statement to KXAN for this story, Warren said, “The top priority of Texas nursing facilities is the health and safety of residents. Protecting residents from situations of abuse, neglect and exploitation (ANE) are of utmost importance. Beyond this responsibility that facility leadership and staff take on, there are regulatory and reporting requirements in place at state and federal levels.”

Carmen Tilton, Vice President of Public Policy at the Texas Assisted Living Association, also described the current regulatory safeguards aimed at preventing instances of abuse and neglect, including background checks and regular, on-site inspections of facilities by the state and other health officials.

“Any tragedy that takes place in a community is one that we wish didn’t happen,” Tilton said.

AARP Texas also wants to see more funding allocated to the Health and Human Services Commission — particularly to fund programs for caregivers assisting older Texans who do not live in facilities regulated by HHSC. However, with the aging population growing and more families seeking long-term care, she said advocates will be particularly watching for any impact on the quality of their care.

“These are some of the most vulnerable populations across the state, and they don’t have the capacity to have their voice,” Earl said. “It is going to sincerely be an issue in the future.”

In a recent regulatory report, HHSC cited U.S. Census data that shows the population of Texans aged 65 and older is expected to grow to more than 15 million by 2050 — and make up 17.4% of the total state population.

“As the older adult population increases, Texas will need more health and human services and supports for older residents,” the report states.

Sherman told KXAN he agrees and plans to make this a priority this legislative session.

“I think that we all have a fiduciary obligation to focus on the most vulnerable in our population. So, yes, we can do better. As a member of appropriations, I intend to make sure that we do a better job at taking care and providing the resources that they need,” he said. “I believe that the conscience of this House floor will be reflected in how we support our elderly.”

Board approves $90 million in grants to bolster Texas cancer research

Efforts to better understand and research cancer in Texas are getting a bolster after the state approved $90 million in new grants on Wednesday.

The governing board of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) approved the new grant funding during its quarterly meeting.

“Today’s grants are an illustration of how CPRIT is fulfilling the original promise made to Texans at our founding,” said CPRIT CEO Wayne Roberts. “From recruitment and prevention grants to boosting the development of cancer research in critical areas of Texas, today’s awards strengthen Texas’s position as a national leader in cancer research.”

The grants will go toward 40 different projects at major research hubs across the state — including Dallas, San Antonio and Houston — as well as fund projects at developing cancer research programs in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.

“In supporting the regional expansion of research efforts through our TREC awards, CPRIT made a strong statement today that whether the institution is located in Houston or El Paso, Dallas or McAllen, all areas of Texas contribute to making the Lone Star State a national leader in the fight against cancer,” Roberts said.

One of the grants includes $6 million to the University of Texas-RGV to the South Texas Center of Excellence in Cancer Research. The center focuses on regional health disparities in the border region, which has the nation’s highest cancer incidence and mortality rate, according to a CPRIT news release.

$7 million in grants will also be primarily focused on fighting cancer in children and adults.

One of those grants will be focused on improving children’s treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, for example. CPRIT is giving $1.4 million to Dr. Melanie Bernhart and Baylor College of Medicine to examine disparities in treatment specifically for Latino children with leukemia, a demographic more likely to be diagnosed and experience severe side effects during treatment, according to CPRIT.

CPRIT was created in 2007 by the Texas Legislature and approved by a statewide vote. In 2019, Texans voted to continue CPRIT with an additional $3 billion – a total of $6 billion in cancer research and prevention. 

The Oversight Committee houses nine appointees from the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the speaker of the house to serve staggered terms. The committee meets once every quarter to set the priorities for the agency and vote on proposed, peer-reviewed cancer research and prevention grants to institutions throughout the state.

Specific funding breakdowns can be read here.