Six Things Arizona Is Doing Right

pillflagThe Arizona legislature has been an eager participant in the War on Women, rolling back women’s health and reproductive rights with a number of measures we’ve covered on this blog. Then there was Senate Bill 1062, the bill that would have given a green light to discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and many others had it not been for Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto in February. It’s easy to feel embattled in times like these, which is why a look at what Arizona is doing right might be in order.

Here’s a look at six recent news items from around the state to remind us that we have some victories to count — not just losses.

1. Moving Forward with Medicaid Expansion

Last year, against opposition from other Republicans, Gov. Brewer signed into law a Medicaid expansion that was expected to make 300,000 additional Arizonans eligible for coverage. Brewer stated that the expansion would also protect hospitals from the costs associated with uninsured patients and bring additional jobs and revenue to the economy.

That expansion took effect on the first of the year, and by early February the Associated Press was reporting that already close to 100,000 Arizonans had obtained coverage. At Tucson’s El Rio Community Health Center, the change has made them “very, very busy,” according to Chief Financial Officer Celia Hightower. El Rio used a recent grant to hire six application counselors — in addition to five who were already on staff — who could help patients understand their eligibility and guide them through the process of obtaining coverage. Pharmacist Sandra Leal reports that they’re now seeing patients receive diabetes care they previously couldn’t afford — and no longer having to choose “between paying for the doctor and paying for their grocery bill.”

Opposition to the expansion has continued, but Brewer hasn’t budged. The conservative Goldwater Institute, on behalf of a group of Republican legislators and several citizens, filed a suit to overturn the legislation. The suit was dismissed earlier this year, but their attorney stated that they planned to appeal.

Brewer is in her last year in office, but she’s been putting her energy into supporting the allies who broke ranks with the GOP to back her initiative. Her allies will have the support of the political action committee she formed, Arizona’s Legacy PAC, which has raised money to deliver on her promise to protect them from political fallout. The $620,000 it reported earlier this year made it the state’s best-funded independent PAC. Brewer called her fundraising for the PAC “pretty impressive,” but anticipates she’ll need all of the money to back her allies’ reelection bids. Brewer’s efforts will hopefully mean that, regardless of which party wins in coming elections, health care for Arizonans will not be jeopardized.

2. Advancing the Violence Against Women Act

For tribal police on the Pascua Yaqui reservation, responding to cases of domestic violence has often meant driving the perpetrator to a Circle K outside the reservation and asking him to leave. That’s because their tribal courts did not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans — a jurisdictional problem among Native American nations that has often rendered them helpless against offenders.

That limitation is slated to change, and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe has joined two other Native American nations in a pilot program that will allow them to prosecute non-tribal defendants. The change was made possible on March 7, 2013, when President Obama signed his reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Under the reauthorization, the act grants expanded criminal jurisdiction to Native American nations, closing the gap that left them without recourse in many cases of domestic violence. The pilot program allows the Pascua Yaqui Tribe to adopt the change ahead of hundreds of other tribes. Approval to participate in the program was due in large part to the efforts of tribal Chairman Peter Yucupicio and Chief Prosecutor Alfred Urbina, who traveled to Washington last year to show that with a $21 million court of law and police complex, they had both the infrastructure and tribal codes to meet the Justice Department’s criteria for expanded jurisdiction.

Although the change comes with limitations on what cases can be prosecuted, the message it sends is an improvement. “When you do not have an adequate system of justice or laws, it creates a perception of lawlessness,” Urbina said. “When you have decades of this legal sickness festering in tribal communities, it has a tremendous impact on the health and wellness of tribes.”

3. Affirming Transgender Rights in Tucson

Last year, Arizona gained some notoriety with the introduction of Senate Bill 1045, the anti-transgender “bathroom bill” that would allow business owners to deny access to their bathrooms based on the gender identity of the individuals wanting to use them. In response, Tucson’s mayor and city council responded by voting unanimously to oppose the bill, citing “Tucson’s proud legacy of embracing diversity and nondiscrimination.”

That legacy showed its strength again this year when Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) added protections for transgender students and staff to its nondiscrimination policy. The revisions, which the TUSD Governing Board approved 4 to 1, were made in response to concerns from parents about a transgender student’s use of a restroom at an elementary school. Also, this year in Tucson, the University of Arizona became the first of the state’s universities to add a “Transgender Benefit” to its student health insurance, covering behavioral health services and gender reassignment procedures. Although the benefit is only available to students, there are plans to include faculty and family members later.

4. Maintaining a Higher Minimum Wage

While the debate over the minimum wage has heated up in Washington, Arizona has quietly seen a 10-cent increase in its minimum wage to $7.90 per hour (9 percent more than the federal minimum), along with modest job growth. Arizona is one of 13 states that increased their minimum wage this year (and all but two of those states saw job growth, contrary to warnings from opponents of a higher minimum wage). Among those 13 states, Arizona was one of nine in which the rate automatically increased to adjust for inflation.

The routine increase was mandated by a 2006 law approved by Arizona voters, and thanks to that law, 2014 will be the fourth year in a row that Arizona’s minimum wage has been higher than the federal rate.

A majority of minimum wage earners are women, and 28 percent of them have children. A higher minimum wage means that more of them can afford health insurance, visits to the doctor, child care, and other necessities.

5. Launching the Body Love Conference

To get a sense of how ubiquitous and damaging body shaming can be in the United States, it might help to look at the island nation of Fiji instead of our own turf. As food policy expert Raj Patel has highlighted, prior to the 1990s, eating disorders were virtually unheard of in Fiji. Then, in 1995, television came to the small nation, and within three years of viewing predominantly U.S. programming, 11.9 percent of teenage Fijian girls reported that they had induced vomiting to control their weight.

Among adolescent girls in the United States, a negative body image is associated with a lower likelihood of negotiating condom use during sexual activity. That’s one of the many ways that a negative body image can have harmful outcomes — and one of the many reasons body acceptance is so important.

Embracing the cause of body acceptance, Tucsonan Jes Baker amplified her advocacy through her popular Militant Baker blog. Riding a wave of success, she launched a fundraising campaign to give the movement a new platform and take it to another level. After raising the funds she needed, Baker launched the Body Love Conference, held in April at the University of Arizona. The conference featured 33 presenters, with workshops on building self-esteem and supportive communities.

Last year Baker’s blog went from 20,000 to nearly a million readers, and with the Body Love Conference, it’s clear that her revolution isn’t stopping any time soon.

6. Passing Improved Sex Education in Tempe

At the beginning of this year, Tempe Union High School District (TUHSD) found itself under attack as plans to make their sex education more consistent and more comprehensive at district schools caught the attention of a conservative group called the Alliance Defending Freedom. The objections the group raised ranged from overblown to completely false. They claimed, for example, that the school district had invited Planned Parenthood to teach the curriculum — and that Planned Parenthood would use that as a platform to promote abortion. The truth was that a Planned Parenthood representative had been consulted as a subject matter expert, but beyond that Planned Parenthood had neither played nor vied for any other role.

In spite of the controversy, the board decided it would create a curriculum, using Family Life and Sexual Health or FLASH, as a framework. FLASH was developed by Public Health – Seattle & King County in Washington. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) has identified FLASH as a comprehensive sexuality education program that covers a wide range of topics, including gender roles, body image, sexual orientation, human growth and development, abstinence, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Sex education has often suffered in Arizona because there are no requirements if a school district does offer sex education that it be comprehensive. Instead of settling for those standards, the TUHSD board has moved forward with better sex ed, making a big difference to more than 13,000 Arizona students.