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As patients are denied life-saving transplants, Arizona Democrats put the blame on the GOP

Flor Felix still finds it hard to believe that her husband was denied a liver transplant last week.

Francisco Felix, a Laveen resident who suffers from hepatitis C, was prepped for surgery after a family friend passed away and earmarked the liver for Felix—but the family discovered that AHCCCS, the state's Medicaid program, had cut funding for transplants as of Oct. 1, following budget cuts earlier this year.

In order to get the transplant, the family would have had to come up with $200,000.

"We lost the liver, because we do not have money," Flor Felix says. "That's not fair."

By the end of last week, the Felix family had made national news alongside another Arizonan, Randy Shepherd, a 36-year-old man with cardiomyopathy who is in need of a heart transplant that is no longer funded by the state.

Legislative Democrats have come up with a new name for the cuts to health care that were forced through by Gov. Jan Brewer and legislative Republicans in an effort to bring down state spending: Brewercare.

As part of an effort to bridge a budget shortfall that has topped more than a billion dollars, state lawmakers attempted to cut more than 300,000 Arizonans from AHCCCS rolls; the program now covers anyone who earns less than the federal poverty level. They also made Arizona the first state to eliminate KidsCare, a program that provides health insurance to children in households that earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

When the Democratic Congress passed federal health-care reform earlier this year, lawmakers were forced to reverse those cuts, or risk losing as much as $7 billion in federal health-care funds. While that funding has been temporarily restored, some lawmakers, such as Senate President Russell Pearce, are saying they may need to revisit that decision, even if it means provoking a showdown with the federal government.

But there were areas in healthcare spending that were not protected by federal mandates, including certain kinds of checkups—and transplant services. So lawmakers cut about $5.3 million in state funding for those services, which resulted in the loss of more than $20 million in federal matching funds, according to Rep. Matt Heinz, a Democrat who called the cuts "unconscionable."

The Democratic lawmaker, who works as an emergency-room physician in Tucson, says that Republican leaders at the Capitol "would rather people die than discuss balancing the budget in a comprehensive way."

State Sen. Frank Antenori, a Republican who represents Tucson's eastside and Green Valley, called the transplant situation a "tragedy."

Antenori said that Republican lawmakers may be willing to restore the funding for transplants if the decision to cut that money was based on flawed data on survival rates from AHCCCS officials. But he says any action will have to wait until lawmakers return to work in January, because there are no plans for a special session before then.

But Antenori, who voted in favor of the cuts, said the underlying problem was that government was involved in the health-care industry, period.

"This is exactly why you don't want government in the health-care business," Antenori says. "If we had made health insurance really affordable and expanded competition so that it would come in line with the costs of car insurance, a lot of this wouldn't happen, because (patients) wouldn't have to go to some faceless, heartless, cold-blooded government bureaucrat to find out whether or not they can get a heart transplant. That's the real story that nobody wants to talk about. I honestly believe that this is cruel, and this is exactly what you get when you let the government make these decisions."

Antenori's comments were echoed by Tom Jenney, the Arizona director of Americans for Prosperity, who sent out a press release this week urging Arizona lawmakers to completely opt out of Medicaid for low-income Arizonans.

"The Medicaid opt-out would singlehandedly balance Arizona's state budget, make room for large pro-growth tax cuts, and strike a blow against the ObamaCare health-care takeover," Jenney wrote in his release.

But state Rep. Steve Farley, a Democrat who represents midtown Tucson, says that private insurance companies that don't have government mandates have no financial incentive to insure high-cost patients. He criticized Antenori for voting for the transplant-funding cuts.

"It's unfortunate that far-right-wing corporatist talking points are all we can get from somebody, instead of taking responsibility for a vote that he made to eliminate life-saving benefits from people who depend on them in Arizona."

For Flor Felix, the complicated politics are reduced to a hard truth.

"Day by day, I ask, 'How can this happen?'" she says. "Basically, if you have money, you can live. If you don't have money, you're gonna die."