March 25, 2010

Senate Republicans urge action on Tennessee Health Freedom Act

Fueled by the recent passage of federal healthcare legislation in Congress, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) and members of the Senate Republican Caucus held a press conference on Wednesday urging the state’s House of Representatives to take immediate action to pass the Tennessee Health Freedom Act. Passage of the bill, which is pending action in the House Industrial Impact Subcommittee, would put Tennessee into position to join the Virginia and Idaho legislatures on the front lines in filing legal action to support the rights of citizens within their boundaries not to participate in the massive federal government takeover of the nation’s health care system.

The Tennessee Health Freedom Act was approved in the State Senate on February 18 by a vote of 26 to 1, with 5 members abstaining.

“This legislation has become vital to challenge the massive unfunded mandate that has been passed down to the states,” said Senator Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, who is sponsor of the bill. “Never in history has the federal government mandated that Tennesseans buy anything. This is kind of equivalent to the federal government saying you have to buy a General Motors car because we bailed ‘em out and we have an interest in it. If the people of Tennessee don’t want federal health care, this will be the way for them to choose other avenues.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 3498, prohibits the federal government from imposing fines or penalties on a person’s decision not to participate in the federal plan. Due to constitutional restraints, the bill does not “nullify” the federal law, as it would still allow individuals the option to participate in a federal program. However, it acknowledges the right of Tennesseans to refuse to participate in a government-run health insurance program. It also calls on the state’s Attorney General to take action in the defense or prosecution of rights protected under this legislation.

Earlier this week Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey renewed his efforts to persuade Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper to join his colleagues in at least 13 other states in legal action on the matter. Ramsey had already asked Cooper to make preparations for protective legal action when the federal health care bill was approved by the United States Senate in December.

“The United States Constitution does not give the federal government the authority for this massive power grab that will reduce individual liberty and strangle state government finances,” Ramsey said. “Politicians in Washington may have temporarily lost their minds but we still have our sanity out here in the states and we need to take action to protect our citizens from these mandates.”

“The federal healthcare law is an unprecedented encroachment on the personal liberty of our citizens,” added Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “Tennessee cannot sit idly by and allow the rights of our citizens to be violated by this mandate.”

The federal action is expected to cost Tennessee more than $200 million annually. It comes at a time when the state is in its 21st consecutive month in which sales tax revenues have recorded negative growth.

“Tennessee is suffering great financial hardship in these economically challenging times,” added Norris. “We cannot print money like the federal government. This federal mandate will be devastating over the long run, consuming anticipated growth in revenues once the economy recovers in several years. This means we will not be able to make any future improvements in critical state needs like education and public safety because Congress has tied our hands with their massive healthcare program.”

The Industrial Impact Committee amended the bill with a procedural amendment and delayed further action on the measure until next week.

Bill would improve state’s “Silver Alert System” legislation

The Senate voted this week to improve Tennessee’s “Silver Alert System” by removing the age requirement to include any citizen with Alzheimers, dementia, or a physical impairment to be covered under the act. Previously, the law was limited to those 60 years of age or older.

The “Silver Alert System,” which was passed into law last year, works similarly to the “Amber Alert System” to help locate missing individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias. The program calls for local law enforcement agencies to coordinate with non-profit organizations such as A Child is Missing or the Alzheimer’s Association to aid in their efforts.

“This legislation brings a community to their aid when a senior is missing to take advantage of the short window of time needed to bring these vulnerable citizens home and avert a tragedy,” said Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) sponsor of the bill. “There is a critical 24-hour time period in which to locate missing seniors. This program is designed to disseminate quickly descriptive information about the missing person, so that citizens in the affected area can be on the lookout for the endangered person and notify local law enforcement with any relevant information. I am very pleased that we have made improvements to this law to cover others who are impaired.”

Approximately 100,000 Tennesseans and as many as 5.2 million persons nationwide are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The Silver Alert system is working in eight states and has resulted in the safe return of a majority of those reported.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has reported that six in 10 of those with Alzheimer’s disease will wander away and become disoriented. Half of those who wander are found within five miles of their home. Of those not found within 24 hours, half will be seriously injured or die.

The legislation, Senate Bill 2903, now goes to the governor for his signature.

Plan would help hospitals avoid devastating cuts

Members of the Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Services Committee voted this week to approve a plan sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) to help hospitals avoid almost $659 million in cuts proposed in Governor Phil Bredesen’s 2010-2011 budget. Hospitals have asked the General Assembly to assess a coverage assessment on them in order to raise $230 million. Money raised would be used to draw down $430 million in federal funds available through a temporary Medicaid match program.

Language in the legislation, Senate Bill 3528, also ensures that any assessment would not be passed along to patients. In addition, hospitals have negotiated, contracted rates with payers that would prevent them from passing the fee on to patients.

“The proposed hospital coverage assessment will allow hospitals and the state to have some breathing room until the national and state economies recover,” said Senator Overbey. “The assessment will not be passed on to patients, nor will the federal match affect the federal deficit.”

Hospital officials say the budget cuts, if not restored, would have a long-term impact on TennCare enrollees, hospitals and other providers and patients, particularly Level 1 trauma centers and hospitals in the most rural areas of the state. It would also have severe ramification for high cost services, such as treatments needed for burn, perinatal and hemophilia patients.

The assessment would be based on 3.5 percent of a hospital’s net patient revenue according to its 2008 Medicare cost report. The money would restore cuts made to such services as critical access hospitals, the Graduate Medical Education program, a $10,000 cap on inpatient and the 8-visit limit imposed on outpatient services, therapies, and office visits. Money raised by the fee would also provide funds for the medically needy program, critical access hospitals and payments to reimburse hospitals for a portion of their uncompensated TennCare. Governmental hospitals, critical access hospitals, freestanding rehabilitation hospitals, long term acute care hospitals and pediatric research hospitals are not included in the assessment, as well as state mental health institutes.

“While patients will be protected from this assessment being passed on to them, citizens all across the state will feel the effect if the General Assembly does nothing and the proposed $659 million in cuts take effect, forcing hospitals to restrict services and patient transfers,” Overbey added.

Twenty-six other states have a similar assessment plan to provide funding for their Medicaid programs and twelve additional states are currently considering such a plan.

Legislation educates women that coercion to have an abortion is a crime in Tennessee

Legislation that aims to educate women that coercion to have an abortion is a crime in Tennessee won approval this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill, Senate Bill 3812, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), would require a physician’s office, ambulatory surgical treatment center, or other clinics in which abortions are performed to post signs to provide women with this information about the state law and their option to receive help if they are being threatened.

According to a survey published in the Medical Science Monitor, over 64 percent of women who received abortions said they felt pressured or coerced into having an abortion. The sign would be posted in the waiting area and patient consultation rooms, but would not apply to clinics where an abortion is performed to prevent the death of a pregnant female.

“It is against the law to coerce a woman into having an abortion in Tennessee,” said Senator Johnson. “This bill ensures that women are fully aware of this law and lets them know that they can seek help if they are physically threatened.”

Bill provides an educational approach to remove discarded mercury from landfills

The full Senate passed on final consideration legislation this week that provides an educational approach to keep toxic mercury-added consumer products from being improperly disposed in landfills. The bill, Senate Bill 2403, sponsored by Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), requires employers with 10 or more employees, tanning bed facilities, or businesses with 3,000 square feet or more to recycle mercury containing products, which are predominantly fluorescent light bulbs. Other lighting products include high intensity discharge bulbs and projector lamps.

“Improper management and disposal of these bulbs will release mercury into the environment,” said Senator Southerland. “This causes dangerous contamination of land and waterways which, in turn, destroys our food chain.”

Health problems associated with mercury exposure include digestive, cardiovascular, nervous system and kidney-related illness. Experts maintain yearly usage of mercury containing lamps is in excess of one billion nationwide.

“Most businesses are already using responsible recycling measures to aid in efforts to keep mercury out of our landfills,” added Southerland. “This legislation seeks to make sure other businesses are educated and informed of this requirement and the hazards it poses to our environment.”

In Brief

Government Efficiency — State Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) won passage of a bill this week to increase efficiency within state government departments. The legislation, Senate Bill 3013, encourages departments within state government to take comments and suggestions from both employees and the public on how to improve efficiency. Departments would be encouraged to add a public comment portal to their individual websites, under the bill, to facilitate suggestions from the general public. As departments implement the program, they will be required to report back to the General Assembly on the success of the plans during the annual budget hearings in Senate and House committees.

Government Fraud Hotline — Similarly, the Senate State and Local Government Committee gave their approval to a bill to help ensure that government fraud and abuse is investigated by the Comptroller. The Comptroller is presently required to investigate reports received from government employees and citizens through their hotline regarding fraud, abuse, or wrongdoing by state agencies and private corporations that contract with a state agency. Senate Bill 3682, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), expands that law to require state agency officials who have knowledge of a theft, forgery, credit card fraud, or any other act of unlawful or unauthorized taking or abuse of public money, property or services, report it to the Comptroller immediately.

Sex offenders — The full Senate passed legislation sponsored by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin) to require the Board of Medical Examiners to deny or revoke the license of any physician convicted of an offense which requires registration as a sexual offender. The bill, Senate Bill 3362, provides for communications between the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s (TBI) Sex Offender Registry and the Board of Medical Examiners to make sure that no existing physician is on the Registry. The action comes after a mother in Middle Tennessee learned her child’s family practice physician was listed on the state’s Sex Offender Registry.

Drivers License / English — The Senate Transportation Committee has given approval to legislation, Senate Bill 63, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), to require that Tennessee drivers’ license exams are given in English. The measure seeks to make sure that immigrants know how to read the road signs and can drive safely in Tennessee. The bill does not apply to persons whose presence in the United States has been authorized by Homeland Security for work in companies located in Tennessee through the efforts of Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development in order to accommodate those nationalities with manufacturing facilities in the state.

Birth Certificates / Stillborns — The full Senate has approved a proposal calling for the state to acknowledge the birth of a stillborn infant by issuing a birth certificate if the parents request one. The legislation, SB 3189, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) calls for issuance of a birth certificate, upon the request of parents for stillborn infants if they are 20 weeks or more gestation or 350 grams. The action comes after testimony from parents of stillborn infants talked to members of the General Assembly about the need for the state’s recognition that their baby had been born and its role in their healing process.

Veterans / Professional Privilege Tax – Legislation was approved in the Senate Finance Committee that would ensure that physicians who are deployed overseas as commissioned officers in the Armed Forces are exempt from Tennessee’s $400 occupational privilege tax. The bill, Senate Bill 2782, is sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville).

General Assembly / Mileage allowance – Members of the State and Local Government Committee voted to limit the reimbursement of in-state airline travel for members of the General Assembly to the mileage reimbursement they would have received if they had driven. The proposal, Senate Bill 3300, is sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).

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