March 19, 2015

Dr. Gail Beeman and Dr. Kenneth Robertson visit with Senator Norris  over lunch this week in Nashville

Dr. Gail Beeman and Dr. Kenneth Robertson visit with Senator Norris
over lunch this week in Nashville

County Road Relief Act would return millions of dollars to taxpayers in the form of road improvements

Legislation returning millions of dollars to taxpayers in the form of road infrastructure improvements was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee this week. The “County Road Relief Act of 2015,” sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), changes the way Tennessee currently manages its State Aid Road Grant Program to make it easier for counties to access state funds to upgrade, repair and improve roads.

“This legislation helps to unlock local money that has been sitting unused to help aid communities with making needed road improvements,” said Senator Yager. “Counties may have state road aid accounts, but cannot access those funds because they can’t afford the match. This will help get needed road work done in all 95 Tennessee counties.”

Currently, to receive funding through the State Highway Aid System, a 25 percent local match must be made by local governments. Senate Bill 1005 would allow a county to use state highway aid for a project, as long as they contribute at least two percent of the approved project cost or provide in-kind work as approved by the Department of Transportation. The legislation is particularly helpful to rural counties whom are struggling financially.

“I am very excited about the potential that this legislation brings not only to provide better roads for our citizens but to bring in new industry and jobs to our communities,” Yager added.

 Bob Cunningham visited with Senator Norris  earlier this month

Bob Cunningham visited with Senator Norris
earlier this month

Senate Health and Welfare Committee approves lifesaving “right to try” bill for terminally ill patients

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved major legislation this week that would allow a terminally ill patient that has an advanced illness to try an experimental drug that has completed Phase I of clinical trials but is still pending approval by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Senate Bill 811, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), would apply to terminally ill patients who have tried all other treatment options that are currently available as long as their physician has recommended it and the diagnosis and prognosis has been confirmed by a second physician.

“This proposal will give terminally ill patients hope by making it easier for them to access potentially life-saving medication,” said Senator Hensley, who is a physician. “This helps them cut through the bureaucracy when time is of the essence.”

Drugs and medical devices undergo three phases of clinical trials before they go to the FDA for review. The process can take more than a decade. Other than clinical trials, which are difficult to qualify for, the FDA has provisions for patients who want to access experimental drugs under its compassionate use program, but that process is also lengthy and time-consuming.

The bill also releases the physician and treatment facility from liability for using the drug.

“This legislation is about giving patients, in consultation with their physician, more choices about their course of treatment in instances where otherwise there would be no hope,” added Hensley.

The bill now heads to the Senate floor for final approval.

 Calvin Stovall, Sen. Reggie Tate, Governor Haslam, Lisa Allen and  Deanie Parker celebrating Stax Museum of American Soul receiving  the 2015 Governor’s Arts Award

Calvin Stovall, Sen. Reggie Tate, Governor Haslam, Lisa Allen and
Deanie Parker celebrating Stax Museum of American Soul receiving
the 2015 Governor’s Arts Award

Tennessee’s Veterans Affairs Department works to serve state’s veterans with a wide variety of services

Tennessee is working hard to serve veterans in various capacities according to State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder, who appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week to present her department’s budget for the fiscal year that begins in July. The department, which has focused primarily on claims and burials in the past, is now engaged in helping veterans receive a college education, job opportunities and a wide variety of other services.

The department’s wide array of services is the impetus behind legislation to change the name to the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services, an action which will also separate it from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which mainly handles claims. Senate Bill 116, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), has passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives and is on its way to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.

“Of course, it is our mission to serve Tennessee veterans with dignity and respect and to be their entrusted advocate,” said Grinder. Last year the department secured $1.9 billion tax-free federal dollars for veterans and families.

The Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs has been nationally recognized several times for their claims assistance. The department has reduced the average amount of time processing a veteran’s claim from a week or more to one day with their electronic filing system.

Grinder said Gulf War veterans have increased by 25,000 in Tennessee over the last couple of years. “This year, they are going to surpass Vietnam veterans to be the largest cohort of veterans in our state,” she said. “That’s why it’s important that we reach out to veterans in ways other than just claims and burials. It is important that we be able to connect veterans with educational institutions and employment opportunities, because this transition is very important to them.”

In 2013, the number of veterans in private and public institutions in Tennessee increased by 200 percent, but the department found that schools were not fully equipped to help in the transition. They found that veterans were enrolling but not graduating at the rate that they should.

The state veterans’ homes are another priority for the department. U.S. News and World Report, which rated more than 16,000 nursing homes using data research on nursing home safety, health inspection and staffing, recently rated Tennessee’s veterans’ homes among the top in the nation. In 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued five star ratings to the Tennessee State Veterans Home in Murfreesboro, the W.D. “Bill” Manning Tennessee State Veterans Home in Humboldt and the Senator Ben Atchley Tennessee State Veterans Home in Knoxville.

In other legislation to help the state’s veterans, Senator Norris gained approval of legislation in the Senate Education Committee updating the state’s laws pursuant to the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. “Tennessee was actually ahead of this change when we passed the Tennessee VETS Act in 2014, which granted veterans in-state tuition rates when residency was established here,” said Senator Norris. “However, due to the passage of this federal legislation, our statute requires some minor updating to mirror federal law.”

Senate Bill 976 would add spouses and dependent children as parties eligible for in-state tuition rates. Since a veteran can assign their benefits to a spouse or children, they would also qualify for these tuition and fee rates. It would also shift the period of eligibility after discharge for in-state tuition rates from two years to three years. In addition, it requires the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) to convene the University of Tennessee (UT) and Tennessee Board of Regents systems to review processes related to awarding academic credit to veterans. This is known as “PLA,” or “prior learning assessment’” and ensures that veteran students receive as much academic credit as possible for training or skills obtained during their service.

In addition, the Senate Transportation Committee approved a bill that would give non-resident veterans the same authorization as veterans who are Tennessee residents to use their experience as a military truck driver to receive a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Senate Bill 368, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), would allow experienced military drivers to waive the state’s CDL skills test requirement upon providing proof of a military license for the class of vehicle in which they are seeking licensure. This would apply as long as their driving record shows no accidents or citations over the past two years.

In Brief

Regulation Freedom Amendment – A resolution sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), that aims to force Congress to pass a “Regulation Freedom” Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has received final approval in the State Senate. Senate Joint Resolution 2 calls upon Congress to require that, whenever one quarter of the members of the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate transmit to the President their written declaration of opposition to a proposed federal regulation; a majority vote of the House and Senate is necessary to adopt it.

Teacher Protection Act – The full Senate gave approval to legislation on Monday that would automatically provide teachers and student teachers with professional liability insurance. “The Educator Protection Act of 2015,” sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), would provide insurance coverage to about 78,000 full- and/or part-time teachers and 9,000 student teachers at no cost to the educators, so they do not have to worry about the liability of lawsuits during the course of their employment. Currently, teachers must find their own coverage if they are not protected by professional liability insurance provided by their local school system. Senate Bill 604 creates a special account within Tennessee Department of Treasury that would be invested by the Treasurer and administered by the state’s Board of Claims to provide liability coverage. Governor Haslam has provided $5 million in the state’s budget proposal to pay for the program.

Fees / Physician Assistants — Legislation that prohibits a health insurance company from charging a higher co-payment fee for services rendered by a physician assistant than that charged for similar services rendered by a physician has been given final approval by the State Senate. Senate Bill 54 is sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville).

Beer Permits / Lawful Residents — Legislation has been approved by the full Senate which requires a beer permit holder to be a lawful resident of the United States. Senate Bill 185, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), helps to ensure that counties can do the appropriate background check of the applicant before issuing a beer permit.

First Responders / Hepatitis C — The full Senate has approved legislation that expands the presumption statute currently in state law to include Hepatitis C as being presumed to have been acquired in the line of duty in all cases involving emergency rescue workers. Currently that burden is on the first responder to prove they got the disease on the job. Senate Bill 20 is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).

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