Bully Pulpit

Pushy, driven, and fearless, Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer is Bush's big man on the border. But is he tough enough to cut through the red tape snarling efforts to help the poor people living in the colonias?

Other Bomer recommendations in the bill also show his desire to prevent further delays and overcome bureaucratic impediments. The bill calls for hiring six ombudsmen in border counties to help identify problems. It would allow people who are not licensed plumbers to install water and sewer lines and permit water and sewer hookups in areas that do not meet road-width requirements.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville who is sponsoring the bill, says Bomer has the attitude that this legislative session will not end without passage of a meaningful colonias bill.

"I feel good about its chances," Lucio says. "Elton's stature, which is overpowering, and his assertiveness can help make the difference. Knowing Elton, he won't allow anyone to run over him."

In search of answers in Las Palmas, on the trail of the Socorro mayor, in his drive to improve conditions in colonias, Elton Bomer is like a child sitting in the back seat of his parents' car, asking them, "Are we there yet?" When they answer no, he asks again. Are we there yet? No.

One more time. Are we there yet?
As insurance commissioner, Bomer pulled a stunt similar to his relentless pursuit in Socorro. It resulted in his getting exactly what he wanted.

It was January 1997. The sun had barely risen, and Bomer, as usual, was already settled in at his desk, eating a light breakfast and reading the local paper. He came across a front-page story saying PCA Health Plans of Texas, Austin's largest HMO, was planning to stop covering the popular prescription allergy drug Claritin. Instead, the company would reimburse only the cheapest drug on the market. Even worse, PCA would pay for just one daily dose of the twice-a-day medication and expected members to take an over-the-counter drug at night.

Bomer nearly choked on his bagel. It was a blatant case of an HMO trying to play doctor. He picked up the phone and called the Insurance Department's general counsel, asking her whether she had read the paper yet. She hadn't.

"Read it and call me back," he barked. She did a few minutes later. Bomer learned from her that PCA's company headquarters was 15 minutes up the freeway in north Austin and that the board of directors was meeting that day.

"I'd like to go out there and see them," Bomer said. When the general counsel offered to call PCA to set up a time, Bomer interrupted her. "I don't want an appointment. I just want to go out there."

With a fidgety and furious boss in her passenger seat, the general counsel broke several traffic laws as she sped up the freeway to PCA headquarters. When they arrived at the building, Bomer flung open the door and confronted the receptionist in the lobby. He asked to see the boss. The receptionist asked for Bomer's name.

"I'm Elton Bomer, and I'm commissioner of insurance."
"How do you spell that?" the receptionist asked.
Bomer, the front section of the morning newspaper rolled up in his hand, spelled it out for her quite plainly.

"C-o-m-m..."
The resolute receptionist explained that Dr. Donald Gessler, the company president, was in a board meeting.

"I don't care. I still want to see him," said Bomer, who by then was pacing back and forth.

The receptionist retrieved Gessler and the company lawyer. For the next 15 minutes, Bomer read them the riot act.

"I was very plain and blunt," Bomer recalls. "I told them, 'This seems to me like this is the corporate practice of medicine, which is illegal in Texas, and I'm not going to put up with this.' I said, 'Are you going to rescind this decision?'"

Gessler promised Bomer that the matter would be discussed in the board meeting and that he would call him later in the day if they made a decision.

"So I told him, 'Why don't you call me this afternoon whether you made a decision or not and let me know. And if you haven't made a decision by this afternoon, that's OK; just call me tomorrow and let me know if you made a decision by then. And you call me every day until you've made a decision.'"

Jeff Kloster, who was PCA's vice president of legal affairs at the time, sat with Gessler as Bomer chewed them out.

"There was never any question as to where Elton Bomer stood," Kloster says in classic understatement. "He was mad at us, he was very direct, and there was no discussion about what the outcome would be. It was simply, 'You will get this done.'"

That afternoon, PCA rescinded its plan to limit the allergy medications it would cover. Bomer got it done.

A week after stalking the Socorro mayor, Bomer isn't there yet.
Bomer placed five phone calls to the mayor without a return call, so he fired off a letter to him with a direct message: "I would appreciate a full explanation as to why the city of Socorro has not approved a new plat for Colonia Las Palmas, and what could legitimately delay this process for so long."

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