January 9 TN News Digest

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

Governor releases details of Medicaid expansion alternative (CA/Locker, Veazey)
Gov. Bill Haslam turned his public focus Thursday to the political fight to pass Insure Tennessee, his alternative-to-Medicaid health insurance proposal, calling a special session of the General Assembly starting Feb. 2. Speaking in Memphis, Haslam cast the plan as something members of his party should embrace, not avoid. “A lot of Republicans are saying, ‘Well, we want our chance to do health care the way we want to,’” Haslam said. “I would say this is the first step that we would take.” The governor also released documents that lay out the terms of an amendment to Tennessee’s existing waiver from the federal government in which the state uses Medicaid money.

Special session on Insure TN to begin Feb. 2 (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Collins)
Gov. Bill Haslam today released the documents that would implement the alternative-to-Medicaid health insurance plan he will ask state lawmakers to approve in a special legislative session starting Feb. 2. The documents lay out the terms of an amendment to Tennessee’s existing waiver from the federal government in which the state uses federal Medicaid money for TennCare. The amendment is to implement an alternative approach to expansion of the traditional Medicaid program provided for under the federal Affordable Care Act. The two-year pilot program that the governor calls Insure Tennessee would provide health coverage for up to 200,000 Tennesseans who do not currently have access to health insurance or have limited options for getting it.

State unveils details of ‘Insure Tennessee’ plan (Nashville Post)
Noting that Tennessee finds itself among the worst states for smoking, obesity and ailments like diabetes, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration on Thursday released details of his plan to expand Medicaid by way of his “Insure Tennessee” plan. The details, built into an 11-page amendment to an existing a waiver to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are now available for a 30-day public review. “The Insure Tennessee plan is a conservative approach that introduces market principles to Medicaid, provides health care coverage to more Tennesseans at no additional cost to taxpayers, and leverages a payment reform initiative that is working to control health care costs and improve the quality of care. I believe this plan is a critical first step to fundamentally changing health care in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a release Thursday.

Haslam sets date for special session on Medicaid expansion, releases details (NBJ)
Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday called for a special session of the General Assembly next month to consider his plan to expand Medicaid coverage as his office released additional details on the program. Haslam issued a proclamation to convene an “extraordinary session” on Feb. 2 for the General Assembly to consider authorizing his plan, a two-year pilot program called Insure Tennessee. Based on preliminary details released last month, Haslam’s plan will use federal funding for Medicaid expansion to create two coverage options for Tennesseans that earn 138 percent of the poverty level or less, or $16,100 a year for an individual or $32,914 for a family of four. It’s expected to provide coverage to more than 200,000 uninsured Tennesseans, according to estimates from Haslam’s office.

Haslam calls special session for Insure Tennessee (Tennessean/Boucher, Fletcher)
Gov. Bill Haslam is calling a special session of the legislature to hear his answer to Medicaid expansion: “Insure Tennessee,” a two-year pilot program that would provide health care to more than 200,000 Tennesseans who lack direct access to coverage. First announced last month, Insure Tennessee would provide insurance coverage to Tennesseans earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level — roughly $16,000 for an individual and $27,000 for a family of three. The special session is set to start at 4 p.m. Feb. 2. State lawmakers and federal health official must approve of Haslam’s proposal before it can take effect. Haslam has already said he has a “verbal” agreement with federal officials on the deal; legislative approval during the special session could be tougher.

Haslam Calls Special Session on Medicaid (Memphis Daily News)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has set Feb. 2 as the date for a special session of the Tennessee Legislature on his Medicaid expansion proposal. The proclamation issued Thursday, Jan. 8, includes more details that legislators have been awaiting since Haslam announced the general terms of his proposal in December. The terms are in an amendment to the state’s original waiver that created TennCare in the mid-1990s as Tennessee’s version of Medicaid. Federal funding would pay all of the costs of the proposed “Insure Tennessee” program for the first two years, ending Dec. 31, 2016. Haslam has referred to Insure Tennessee as a two-year pilot program. After the first two years, federal funding covers 95 percent of the cost of the expansion.

Haslam Sets Date For Lawmakers To Decide Medicaid Expansion’s Fate (WPLN)
Gov. Bill Haslam has called a special session that will start Feb. 2 dedicated solely to his proposal, Insure Tennessee. But passage won’t come easily, as many state lawmakers, like House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, are greeting it with skepticism. “I respect and admire his thoughts and what he’s trying to do,” Casada said. Many legislators like myself, though, have reservations about increasing the size of government.” Insure Tennessee is meant to extend coverage to more than 200,000 Tennesseans who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, yet too little to buy insurance on their own. The Affordable Care Act calls on states to grant coverage to these people, and the law guarantees the federal government will shoulder the full cost of expansion through 2016 and at least 90 percent after that.

Haslam provides Medicaid details (Associated Press)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has made a habit of being elsewhere the last three times President Barack Obama has visited Tennessee. But on Friday, just as Haslam prepares to sell the GOP-controlled legislature on Medicaid expansion, the governor plans to be front and center with the Democratic president when he visits Knoxville. Haslam insists he’s not worried about any political ramifications from appearing alongside Obama, noting that the president is coming to Tennessee to highlight the state’s free community college program. State Republicans have spent years vilifying Obama and his health care policies, and legislators last year enacted a law requiring their approval for any Medicaid deal.

Harwell, Ramsey want to know details of Insure Tennessee (Tennessean/Boucher)
Lawmakers will meet in a special session soon to decide whether they approve of Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee,” his solution to using federal Medicaid expansion money to create a new program to help more than 200,000 Tennesseans receive health coverage. The plan — Haslam’s administration is adamant it isn’t traditional Medicaid expansion — was officially sent to the legislature Thursday. A final Medicaid waiver creating the plan can’t happen without the approval of the General Assembly. More specifically, it can’t happen without the backing of legislative leaders. Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, originally lauded the concepts in the governor’s plan.

Tennessee Promise inspires Obama’s free community college plan (TN/Tamburin)
President Barack Obama will visit Knoxville on Friday to tout an initiative that would make community college free for students nationwide. It’s a program that draws its inspiration — and name — from a similar one in Tennessee. Obama announced the America’s College Promise Proposal in a video posted to Facebook on Thursday night. He will discuss it publicly for the first time during a speech Friday at Pellissippi State Community College. “Put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for anybody who’s willing to work for it,” Obama said. “It’s something that we can accomplish, and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world.”

Obama to propose free community college plan today (Associated Press)
The White House on Thursday announced a proposal that President Barack Obama said would make community college “free for everybody who is willing to work for it.” But administration officials provided no details about the program’s costs or where the money would come to pay for it. Obama planned to formally announce the plan Friday at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. He gave a preview in a videotaped message shot aboard Air Force One and posted on Facebook. “It’s not just for kids,” Obama said. “We also have to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits.”

Obama to propose national program similar to Tennessee Promise (N-S/Collins)
President Barack Obama will propose in Knoxville on Friday that students across the country be eligible for two years of free community college, a move the White House says could put a college degree within reach for as many as 9 million students. Taking a page from Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise scholarship program, Obama will propose offering two years of tuition-free community college to students in certain programs. To qualify, students would be expected to maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and would have to make steady progress toward completing their degree. In a video preview of his trip to Knoxville, Obama said he wants to make two years of community college free “for anybody who’s willing to work for it.”

Obama Plan Would Help Many Go to Community College Free (New York Times)
President Obama said Thursday that he would propose a government program to make community college tuition-free for millions of students, an ambitious plan that would expand educational opportunities across the United States. The initiative, which the president plans to officially announce Friday at a Tennessee community college, aims to transform publicly financed higher education in an effort to address growing income inequality. The plan would be funded by the federal government and participating states, but White House officials declined to discuss how much it would cost or how it would be financed. It is bound to be expensive and likely a tough sell to a Republican Congress not eager to spend money, especially on a proposal from the White House.

Obama Calls for Two Years of Free Community College for All Students (WSJ)
President Barack Obama on Thursday proposed offering free community college nationwide, in effect extending government-funded education from kindergarten through a two-year degree. “I’d like to see the first two years of community college free for everyone who is willing to work for it,” Mr. Obama said in a video posted Thursday on Facebook. “It’s something we can accomplish and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world.” The plan, which would offset some of the $20 billion in annual tuition received by community colleges, will require legislation in a Republican-controlled Congress that already is at odds with the president over other spending issues. The concept is expected to formally be released in Mr. Obama’s 2016 budget proposal, due out in February.

Obama To Propose A Free Community College Plan Similar To TN Promise (WPLN)
In President Obama’s third visit to Tennessee in the past year, he will be announcing a proposal that would make community college free for all Americans, called America’s College Promise. Details are still emerging, but it could look similar to Tennessee Promise. Obama released a Facebook video Thursday evening saying he will commend Tennessee on its education reform and then propose a way to make college accessible for everyone: “Put simply, what I’d like to see is for the first two years of community college to be free for anybody who’s willing to work for it.” Education, he said, “is the key to success for our kids in the 21st century. But what we also understands is, it’s not just for kids. We also have make sure that everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits.”

Tenn. governor navigates delicate politics of Obama visit (A. Press/Schelzig)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has made a habit of being elsewhere the last three times President Barack Obama has visited Tennessee. But on Friday, just as Haslam prepares to sell the GOP-controlled legislature on Medicaid expansion, the governor plans to be front and center with the Democratic president when he visits Knoxville. Haslam insists he’s not worried about any political ramifications from appearing alongside Obama, noting that the president is coming to Tennessee to highlight the state’s free community college program. State Republicans have spent years vilifying Obama and his health care policies, and legislators last year enacted a law requiring their approval for any Medicaid deal.

Obama to launch manufacturing hub during Knoxville visit (News-Sentinel/Collins)
President Barack Obama will use his trip to the Knoxville area on Friday to launch a regional manufacturing innovation hub that the White House says will help attract more good-paying, high-tech jobs to East Tennessee. The hub, which involves a public-private partnership, is part of a broader push by the White House to bring together private companies, universities and other academic and training institutions to help stimulate job creation. Obama has called for 45 regional hubs to be established across the United States, and the administration already has launched a half-dozen in cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Raleigh, N.C. No other details were disclosed about the East Tennessee hub, which was announced in a blog post on the White House website.

Obama’s visit has Pellissippi staff, students excited (News-Sentinel/Witt)
Gabriel Ware, a junior majoring in Japanese, said he’s preparing what he’ll ask President Barack Obama during his visit today to Pellissippi State Community College. “I don’t know that I’m going to speak with him,” Ware said, “but if I do, then I’ll have a good question to ask.” Ware holds a ticket to see Obama today for an announcement on higher education at the school. He received his ticket because he’s a student orientation leader. He also splits time between Pellissippi and the University of Tennessee. “I’ll finish my (associate’s) degree at Pellissippi and finish up at UT,” Ware said. Whether he’ll actually speak with Obama directly, in Japanese or any other language, is uncertain. Security is tight for the event. White House staff have been coy in releasing details other than saying the president is expected at noon.

Coalition forms to ‘increase and reform’ transportation funding in Tennessee (NBJ)
You hear it a lot in economic development circles: Tennessee has great roads. The transportation and highway networks are great for companies looking to get their product to market. It’s a competitive advantage in recruiting new businesses to the state. A month ago, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer warned Tennessee was becoming a maintenance-only state. Simply put, he said, the state doesn’t have enough funding to build new road projects, with a backlog upwards of $8 billion. Questions of a long-term funding solution at the federal level, which provides around half of TDOT’s $1.8 billion budget, have caused a new topic to get kicked around in Tennessee politics: Raising the state’s gas tax.

U of M Collierville campus expected to boost town, university (CA/Pignolet)
As Mary Jean Smith walked down the hallway Thursday afternoon of what used to be her high school, the Collierville resident found a familiar face hanging on the wall. The face was her own, along with several of her classmates, crossing what is now Poplar Avenue on their way to school around 1947. The photo, along with a few dozen others, now lines the hallway of the new University of Memphis Collierville Center. Smith was among community members and neighbors attending a ribbon cutting and open house at the 27,000 square-foot satellite campus at 215 W. Poplar, set to open for classes on Jan. 20.

Examining the demographics of the 109th General Assembly (CA/Veazey)
When the state legislature discusses placing new restrictions on a woman’s right to an abortion in the coming weeks and months, 83 percent of the voices in the rooms will belong to men. When our lawmakers gather to implement policies with long-ranging effects on the kind of Tennessee we’ll live in for generations to come, more than one-third of those present will be age 60 or older. Almost every one of the state’s 132 representatives (99) and senators (33) reflect some variation of Christian belief in their official biographies on the newly redesigned General Assembly website; about a third of them are Baptist, the largest such group. There are at least 16 lawyers among their number; there is no shortage of small business owners and those who are retired, too.

Meigs County has management, bookkeeping problems, audit finds (TFP)
Meigs County, Tenn., officials need to correct a number of problems with their management and bookkeeping practices, according to an audit by the state comptroller’s office. The annual audit revealed 19 areas of serious concern in a number of Meigs County government offices. Eleven of those findings were highlighted in last year’s audit but have not been corrected, the audit found. Problems include issues with budgeting, purchasing, payroll, record-keeping and failing to reconcile fuel purchases. Auditors also noted the comptroller’s investigative findings, released in October 2014, concerning the Meigs County finance department and a separate conflict of interest violation in the school department. “I am troubled by the history of uncorrected problems in Meigs County,” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said.

Staubus: Tennessee act has created several ‘pill mills’ in Sullivan County (T-N)
Tennessee’s Intractable Pain Treatment Act has created several “pill mills” in Sullivan County and increased prescription drug abuse and the number of drug-dependent infants, District Attorney General Barry Staubus said Thursday. During a meeting of the Sullivan County Anti-Drug Coalition, Staubus talked about the act and the 11 “pain clinics” or “pill mills” now operating in the county. The county’s population is 150,000 and Shelby County’s is more than 1 million. Sullivan County has half as many “pill mills” as Shelby County, he said. “We’re living in the epicenter of it,” he said. Enacted in 2001, the law resulted in an “explosion in use” of prescription painkillers, Staubus said.

East Tennessee gay couples await Supreme Court announcement (N-S/Boehnke)
Mick Proffitt carries legal paperwork in the glove box of his Ford truck wherever he goes. When Proffitt and his husband travel by plane, the couple’s power of attorney documents travel with them in a carry-on suitcase — just in case of emergency. Gwen Castro married in Central Park nearly two years ago, but still can’t convince the state to change her last name to match that of her wife, Erin Schablik. And on the adoption papers for his 14-year-old son, John Camp signed the line designated for Brein’s “mother” because the state doesn’t allow for the possibility a child might have two parents of the same gender. For many such families across East Tennessee, the stakes are high as the U.S. Supreme Court today considers whether to take on gay marriage

Economist relays ‘guarded optimism’ for Memphis (Commercial Appeal/Clarke)
Employers in metropolitan Memphis could add 10,000 jobs in 2015, doubling the pace of growth seen in recent years, a St. Louis Fed economist predicted Thursday. “What we’re seeing is that the national economy is starting to gain some momentum. And Memphis’ economy is fairly sensitive to fluctuations in the national economy,” said Charles Gascon, a regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Gascon’s upbeat forecast, delivered Thursday to the Economic Club of Memphis, promises the most job growth for the 1.3-million-population metro area in any year since 2005. Although other analysts contacted Thursday affirmed the St. Louis Fed forecast, Gascon said he viewed the economic picture with “guarded optimism.”

Dal-Tile plant grading likely finished in February (Dickson Herald)
Mohawk Industries officials recently provided an update of work taking place at Dale-Tile manufacturing site in the Dickson County Industrial Park. Jarrett Steele, spokesperson for Dal-Tile Corp., said “it’s full speed ahead in 2015 for our Dal-Tile Dickson manufacturing plant, and we’re still planning for the startup of production to begin in early 2016.” Steele also provided the following updates: •The first phase of grading, which includes preparing the building pad, is largely complete. The second phase, which will finish grading around the building pad itself, is in progress now and will likely be completed in or before February. •The building is completely designed and the building components should begin arriving in March. Most of the manufacturing equipment will begin arriving shortly thereafter.

Forums to detail poor health in Tennessee (Tennessean/Fletcher)
The Tennessee Business Roundtable is kicking off a series of forums that will highlight how Tennesseans’ poor collective health impacts the economy and quality of life. It costs about $6 billion a year to treat preventable and chronic disease in Tennessee, according to the Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness. Tennessee ranks 45th out of 50 states in health status, according to the 2014 report by UnitedHealth Foundation. It is in the bottom four for rates of diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity and smoking, according to the report. The Tennessee Business Roundtable will make four stops over the next four weeks to talk to the public about how these problems converge into problems for the state’s economy, because they are factors behind preventable hospitalizations and poor physical health days.

Ohio: Drug Switch May Delay Executions in Ohio (New York Times)
The state of Ohio said Thursday that it might delay several executions as it changes its lethal-drug protocol after a convicted man choked, gasped and clenched his fists for more than 20 minutes during his execution last year. Gary Mohr, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told a federal judge that the state would discontinue its use of the two drugs — midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a narcotic — used to execute Dennis McGuire, 53, on Jan. 16, 2014. Criticisms of Mr. McGuire’s death led the state to put off executions for the rest of 2014. Mr. McGuire was convicted of rape and murder. Mr. McGuire’s son and daughter filed a lawsuit, saying their father’s death violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

OPINION

Free-Press Editorial: President could get ideas, advice while in the state (TFP)
Give President Obama this. He’s coming into a solidly Republican state today — one that earlier this week was proclaimed the State of the Year for economic development by Business Facilities magazine — supposedly in order to praise a higher education plan put into place by the state’s Republican governor and to tout a private-public partnership in manufacturing innovation in East Tennessee. The Democratic president will be accompanied by one Republican U.S. senator who rightly has called his foreign policy “a day late and a dollar short,” by another Republican U.S. senator who said “Obamacare is a failure” and “America’s drowning in debt” and by a Republican governor who hasn’t depended on the federal government for innovation.

Editorial: Obama brings welcome plans with visit to ET (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
President Barack Obama has chosen East Tennessee as the place where he will announce a major education initiative today. The announcement is a recognition of Tennessee’s innovative approach to improving access to education and training. In addition to the education initiative, Obama will announce the area’s designation as a manufacturing innovation hub during a trip that includes stops at Pellissippi State Community College and Techmer PM’s high-tech production facility in Clinton. The visit is part of a three-day tour offering advance peeks at the State of the Union address Obama is scheduled to deliver Jan. 20.