November 19 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.

Medical supply company expands to Watertown (Tennessean/Humbles)

A medical supply company based in California has announced it will expand with a new operation in Watertown. Diasol, which specializes in products that treat dialysis, has purchased a 46,000-square-foot building in Watertown’s industrial park. A representative at Diasol’s corporate office in San Fernando, Calif., expects the Watertown facility to open sometime in early 2015. Diasol also has facilities in Stockton, Calif.; Phoenix; Austin, Texas; and Allentown, Pa. The new operation will begin with about 25 new jobs, according to Watertown Mayor Mike Jennings. “ (It’s a) great corporate addition to Watertown,” Jennings said.

Construction to begin soon for VW’s $900 million expansion (TFP/Pare)

Construction of Volkswagen’s planned $900 million expansion at its Chattanooga plant is expected to begin in earnest soon with plans to award the first of the project’s big contracts on Friday. Gray Construction of Lexington, Ky., is recommended to undertake $33.6 million in work to enlarge the factory’s body shop, technical center and assembly finish area. A $2.2 million contingency also is included in Gray’s proposed contract. The city and Hamilton County are equally splitting the proposed contract’s cost as part of the incentive package awarded VW to land the plant expansion to build a new sport utility vehicle. The Chattanooga Industrial Development Board, which is overseeing contracts related to the VW project for the city and county, is slated to consider the Gray contract when it meets Friday.

TBI Receives New Accreditations (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has obtained new accreditations for its forensic facilities in Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville. The accreditations come after a lengthy assessment by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors’ Laboratory Accreditation Board. For the first time, TBI’s facilities are now internationally accredited in breath alcohol calibration and crime scene processing. Officials say the upgrade signifies the highest possible accreditation available to forensic laboratories. All TBI laboratories were previously accredited in the disciplines of drug chemistry, toxicology and biology.

Woodland Hills escapees may be transferred to Texas (Tenn/Humbles, Wadhwani)

Twelve teenagers involved in recent escape attempts from Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville may soon be transferred to a juvenile facility in central Texas to serve out their sentences. All 12 teenage boys took part in at least one of two mass escapes from the facility that occurred on Sept. 1, when 32 youths escaped from the facility, and again on Sept. 26, when 13 teenage boys broke out. The 12 teens have remained in temporary juvenile holding cells scattered across the state since they were recaptured or turned themselves in. Department of Children’s Services spokesman Rob Johnson said the teens have not been allowed back to Woodland Hills because they continue to pose a risk.

Tenn. farmers ready to grow hemp, unused to rules (Associated Press)

With a decades-long ban on hemp production in Tennessee finally lifted, some farmers say they want to grow the crop but aren’t used to the government oversight that comes with it. WPLN-FM reports ( the state Agriculture Department held a hearing on Tuesday about proposed rules it hopes to finalize before spring planting. They include a requirement to let inspectors enter hemp fields at any time to check the levels of THC, the only real difference between hemp and its cousin, marijuana. The farmer would have to pay the $35-an-hour bill for the inspection. Famer Linda Albright of Williamson County said she has been growing other crops for years and never had to apply for a license. But Harold Jarboe of Maury County said the rules are understandable.

Farmers Are Stoked About Planting Hemp, But Not About Following Rules (WPLN)

Some farmers are chafing at Tennessee’s tight regulation of hemp, sounding off at a hearing on the rules held by the Agriculture Department Tuesday. The legislature dropped a decades-long ban on hemp production this year in an effort to revive an old Tennessee cash crop, but lawmakers left the finer details to the department, which hopes to finalize the rules in time for the first crops to go in the ground this spring. While farmers like Linda Albright of Williamson County cheered when the state opened up hemp production, they aren’t used to this kind of oversight. “We’ve been growing tobacco and corn and soy and all of this for years and years,” she said. “We’ve never had to apply for a license to grow it.” A hemp license would run $250 a year plus $2 per acre. Inspectors would be allowed in the field at any time to check levels of THC, which is the only real difference between hemp and its look-a-like cousin, marijuana. The farmer would even have to foot the bill at $35 an hour, including travel time.

Email urging Speaker Harwell’s ouster casts her as puppet (Nashville Post)

Tensions between House Republicans are growing as an image circulating among legislators depicts Speaker Beth Harwell as a being a puppet of the House clerk. The image is one of three that have shown up in legislators’ email boxes in recent weeks urging lawmakers to reject Harwell as speaker. She faces opposition in the Dec. 10 Republican caucus elections that cast her as weak on key conservative issues. The latest email featured House Clerk Joe McCord as a puppet master, pulling the strings of Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent and Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson from one hand and House Speaker Beth Harwell and former Republican Caucus Leader-turned education lobbyist Debra Maggart on the other. “It is time to cut ties,” the image says in bold, capital letters. “Vote Rick Womick for speaker. No one will pull his strings.”

Rep. Womick seeks debate with TN House Speaker Harwell (Daily News Journal)

State Rep. Rick Womick announced today that he wants to debate Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell as part of his candidacy to replace the fellow Republican as House leader. “As previously announced, I have decided to seek the position of Speaker-Select, and ultimately, Speaker of the House for the 109th Tennessee General Assembly, challenging the current speaker, Rep. Beth Harwell, for the position,” said Womick, who is from the Rockvale community southwest of Murfreesboro and represents the 34th District. “I appreciate the service of Rep. Beth Harwell as speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives over the past four years. I respectfully submit, however, that competition in any organization, whether in business, the military, or politics, is a healthy variable that yields greater accountability, introduces fresh ideas, and provides new direction to the process.

City Council committee approves extra $1.5 million for rape kits (CA/Connelly)

A Memphis City Council committee passed a voice vote Tuesday to send $1.5 million from the mixed-drink tax into the fund for rape kits. If the full City Council eventually approves the move, it will close some of the $3.3 million gap needed to complete testing of more than 12,000 sexual assault kits. City Council chairman Jim Strickland proposed the move, saying he’d heard of an unexpected windfall in the mixed-drink tax collection. Finance director Brian Collins confirmed that the extra money was available and the committee voted fast. The vote took place minutes before Deputy Police chief Jim Harvey arrived to give his monthly status on the rape kit testing. As he began to describe the $3.3 million funding gap, council member Harold B. Collins told him what the council had just done. “Good deal,” Harvey said.

President Of Largest Teachers’ Union Fears Change In Public Ed. Funding (WPLN)

The head of the country’s largest teachers’ union says there could be a shift in where federal public education funding will go with Republicans controlling the U.S. Senate, a change in emphasis that the union says could hurt public schools. National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia stopped in Nashville on Monday for the start of the union’s annual American Education Week. Amid meets-and-greets with educators at the city’s Shwab Elementary School, Garcia said Senator Lamar Alexander, poised to lead the committee overseeing the nation’s education policy, is “enamored” with the idea of privatizing public education.

Top VA official Sloan Gibson scrutinizes hospital failures (Tennessean/Wilemon)

Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson visited VA hospitals in Nashville and Murfreesboro this week, saying his appearance was not a “one and done” tour as he pledged to keep scrutiny on efforts to correct failures in quality care and to shorten wait times for patient appointments. Gibson, who plans to return to Middle Tennessee in March to check on improvements, said the agency has to rebuild trust in the wake of a government audit and national scandal about veterans being denied access to timely care. “We don’t expect anybody to give it back,” he said. “We have to earn it back.” The Tennessee Valley Healthcare System reported some of the longest wait times in the nation, particularly for new patients needing to see specialists. And the VA Office of Inspector General faulted it for lapses in care in two recent survey audits.

David Petraeus: Veterans are ‘precious resources’ (Tennessean/Tamburin)

Retired U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus was in Nashville on Tuesday to encourage local businesses to hire veterans, who he said were among “our nation’s most precious resources.” Speaking before a job fair for veterans and their spouses, Petraeus, who also served as CIA director, said a military pedigree made veterans an enviable hire. In particular, Petraeus praised the 2.5 million veterans who have served in the Middle East since 9/11, whom he called “the new Greatest Generation.” Petraeus oversaw military action in Iraq and Afghanistan for years after 9/11. He also commanded the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell from July 2002 to May 2004. “If companies are looking for individuals who have leadership experience, who exemplify selfless service, who understand the importance of teamwork and who know what it takes to achieve results under tough conditions, then American veterans are what those companies need,” he said.

Gen. Petraeus calls on Nashville businesses to hire veterans (N. Biz Journal)

Retired General David Petraeus knows a few things about running large-scale operations. The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency commanded coalition forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. On Tuesday, he called on Nashville businesses to hire military veterans, calling them “precious assets” for companies looking to attract talent and grow. “Hiring our veterans is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. It makes great business sense,” Petraeus said, speaking at a veterans job fair at the Music City Center, sponsored by KKR and HCA Holdings Inc. “Enlist our veterans in your [companies],” Petraeus said, adding their “unparalleled skills, experiences” and work ethic are “what companies need.”

Medicaid Rule Could Challenge State Shift Away From Nursing Homes (Stateline)

For more than 30 years, states have been finding new ways to care for aged and disabled Medicaid beneficiaries without confining them to nursing homes. In fact, the number of people living in skilled nursing facilities has declined significantly over the last decade, despite a marked increase in the ranks of the elderly in the U.S. Starting this year, a new federal rule will require states to ensure that long-term care alternatives to nursing homes—such as assisted living facilities, continuing care retirement communities, group homes and adult day care—work with residents and their families to develop individual care plans specifying the services and setting each resident wants. The overarching goal is to create a “home-like” atmosphere, rather than an institutional one and to give residents choices about their care.

Bias complaint filed against Knox County Schools (Associated Press)

A discrimination complaint has been filed against Knox County Schools alleging African-American students and those with disabilities are disciplined more harshly than other students. The University of Tennessee College of Law Education Law Practicum, along with local education and civil rights advocates, filed the complaint Aug. 8 with the U.S. Department of Education. The complaint uses the latest suspension and arrest data that Knox County Schools submitted to the department in 2012. The data show that African-American students and students with disabilities are more likely to be disciplined and referred to law enforcement than their white, non-disabled peers. The complaint asks the federal government to investigate the alleged practices.

Schools superintendent vows frank talks about scores (C. Appeal/Roberts)

Schools where scores aren’t where they need to be, plus the neighborhoods around them, can expect some frank conversations about performance from Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson. “My big takeaway is we have got to do a better job of engaging the community,” he told the school board Tuesday night after a presentation about 20 troubled schools. Those schools are in line to get mentoring for principals, data-driven professional development for staff, and results on grades that will update weekly so parents have the latest on their students’ progress. The 20 schools have not been named yet, but they will be a mix of the lowest performers and those where only segments of students, such as English learners, are not keeping pace.






Craig Fitzhugh, Jeff Yarbro: Expansion of Medicaid can save rural hospitals (Tenn)

USA Today recently published an article (Nov. 12, “Rural hospitals in critical condition”) suggesting the Affordable Care Act was responsible for the closing of numerous rural hospitals. The piece cites low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, as well as patient readmission as the primary drivers of decline. It never mentions that 75 percent of hospital closures happened in states that have foregone Medicaid expansion. While we appreciate the spotlight this story puts on the plight of rural hospitals, we feel the piece ignores a very clear solution. When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, the law envisioned a system where most people could obtain health-care coverage through exchanges. For those who make above 138 percent of the poverty line — about $15,000 for an individual — a subsidy is available to help you purchase your own private plan on either a state-run or federal market.

Guest columnist: Obamacare has detrimental effect on rural hospitals (Tennessean)

Americans have sent a clear message on Obamacare, in the form of a new Republican majority in Congress, and they are demanding immediate repudiation and repeal of the president’s policies. From its adoption, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has sent a devastating blow throughout the health-care industry. In only a few short years, especially in rural America, the law has forced dozens of hospitals to shut their doors, drastically reducing access to care for millions of Americans — the exact opposite of what Americans were told the law would do. Not to mention, contrary to its namesake, the law has driven costs to incalculable figures that are anything but affordable. Due to Obamacare, insurance premiums have skyrocketed upward of 60 percent for many Tennesseans. Furthermore, the number of hospital closures under Obamacare is simply detrimental.

Times Editorial: Do the math: ACA a success in Tennessee (Times Free-Press)

Forget Grubergate. Forget repealing Obamacare. Forget being a cynical southern conservative no-no-no-man or woman. Use what little math our public schools taught you and look at the numbers of the Affordable Care Act and TennCare. According to a new University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research study, the number of uninsured people in the Volunteer State has shrunk by nearly a quarter in the first year since the new health insurance marketplace launched under the Affordable Care Act. A quarter! That’s 25 percent of previously uninsured Tennesseans who are now insured. And this success happened in spite of all the tricks that Tennessee’s conservative politicians could think up to derail the effort, including a backward and costly-to-taxpayers decision not to expand Tennessee’s Medicaid program known as TennCare with federal money already being paid by all taxpayers.