January 28 TN News Digest

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

Haslam brings ‘Insure Tennessee’ message to Clarksville (Leaf Chronicle)
Gov. Bill Haslam came to Clarksville Tuesday as part of a series of statewide conversations about Tennessee’s attempt to wade through the complexity of the federal Affordable Care Act and Medicaid reform. At issue now is a Haslam plan that would extend health care coverage to more working Tennesseans – particularly a 270,000-member segment of the working poor with a median annual income under $10,000 a year. The “Insure Tennessee” plan, which is expected to come to a vote in the Tennessee General Assembly, was the key topic at a roundtable discussion hosted by Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center (MWCHC).

AG: Tennessee has right to cancel Medicaid expansion (Associated Press/Schelzig)
Federal Medicaid officials and the state’s attorney general on Tuesday confirmed that Tennessee could end Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to cover 200,000 low-income people without penalty. Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who was Haslam’s chief legal adviser before being named attorney general last year, said in a legal opinion that the state “would retain the ability to suspend or terminate the demonstration program” as long as it provides proper notice and phase-out procedures. But Slatery said his office lacks “sufficiently specific information” to determine how long it would take to process 200,000 people off the state’s health care rolls.

Feds, AG agree: TN can opt out of Insure Tennessee (Tennessean/Boucher)
The Tennessee attorney general and the head of the federal health department agree: Tennessee can opt out of Gov. Bill Haslam’s health care plan in the future if the state no longer likes the program. The opinions could help Haslam avoid legal and political hurdles in implementing his Insure Tennessee plan, a proposal to provide an estimated 200,000 Tennesseans with federally subsidized health care similar in parts to Medicaid. Haslam has said his proposal won’t cost Tennessee any additional money, thanks to federal dollars covering most of the costs and hospitals chipping in down the road. If that funding changes, Haslam pledges Tennessee could eliminate the program.

Attorney general: Haslam’s Insure Tennessee ‘zero risk’ to state (TFP/Sher)
Both state Attorney General Herbert Slatery and a top federal health official say Gov. Bill Haslam can at any time drop his proposed plan to provide 200,000 low-income Tennesseans with health insurance, without risking any financial penalties from the federal government. In his new legal opinion, Slatery said that under Haslam’s proposal the state “may unilaterally decide to discontinue coverage for the Insure Tennessee population, as long as implementation satisfies certain notice and phase-out procedures set out in the TennCare waiver.”

Who pays for Governor Haslam’s Medicaid proposal? (Tennessean/Tolbert)
“Insure Tennessee” is what Governor Bill Haslam is calling his proposal to expand Medicaid in Tennessee. If his proposal goes into effect, it would not only have a big impact on our state’s economy, but also on health care consumers. There has been widespread coverage of how Haslam envisions Insure Tennessee will work. To understand the details, it helps to have some background on how TennCare is paid for in the first place.

Tennessee Promise aims to change face of state colleges (Tennessean/Tamburin)
Since Gov. Bill Haslam signed Tennessee Promise into law eight months ago, it has attracted a chorus of praise from other states, education experts and the White House, but leaders here can’t afford to rest on their laurels. The pioneering program is still in its infancy, and many questions about its reach and efficacy remain unanswered. The coming year will be a crucial one. “Obviously we’re excited about Tennessee Promise being highlighted as a best practice, but from the perspective of implementation, honestly, it means very little,” said Mike Krause, who was tapped by the governor last year to oversee the program’s roll-out.

Memphis students encouraged to turn in forms for free college (WREG-TV)
On February 15, all high school seniors must turn in the final paperwork to qualify for the Tennessee Promise. The programs pays tuition at a community college or technical school. Tuesday, the state officials leading the charge spoke to a handful of students at Carver High School to get feedback on the application process. Mike Krause is Governor Bill Haslam’s pick to run the Promise program. Krause told the students, “When Memphis succeeds, Tennessee succeeds.”

Denso announces another expansion (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Auto parts supplier Denso Manufacturing is expected today to unveil its third plant expansion at its Athens, Tenn., plant in the last three years. Gov. Bill Haslam, state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd and plant President Yoichi Yamashita are slated to take part in an announcement at 2 p.m. Last January, Denso announced a $55 million expansion of the plant with plans to add 130 jobs. In January 2013, the company unfurled a $50 million expansion and creation of another 130 jobs.

Startups hit the road in Launch Tennessee TENN Roadshow (Times Free-Press)
Ten of the most promising graduates from Tennessee’s regional accelerators are touring the state this week as part of the Launch Tennessee TENN Roadshow. On Tuesday, leaders of the companies, which include Feetz from Chattanooga, pitched their ideas at Coyote Logistics in Chattanooga. The companies will later fly to California and the East Coast to network with other entrepreneurs.

UT President: ‘People Might Not Like What We Do’ To Tighten Budget (WPLN)
The president of the University of Tennessee made a dire statement to the governor last month: Joe DiPietro said the business model of Tennessee’s public universities is “broken.” He pointed to low funding from the state and rising tuition costs for students. In a recent interview with WPLN, DiPietro said he has learned that he couldn’t count on the state to give the university system the funding that he thinks it deserves. “I’d come to Nashville, and I’d tell the legislature and all the elected officials all the great things we’ve accomplished at the University of Tennessee, and they’d say, ‘Attaboy, but you know, we have other issues that are a higher priority,’ ” DiPietro said. “And that meant we had to fix it ourselves.” If the system doesn’t adjust its budget, DiPietro estimates it will have a funding gap of $155 million dollars over the next decade.

Potential budget cuts put help for thousands of disabled in jeopardy (TFP/Belz)
In the small building that houses the day center for Open Arms Care in Ooltewah, dozens of languages circulate every day. Not all the languages are spoken. Some people tap messages into computers or boards. Others communicate their preferences and personalities through a particular wave or word, a special smile or frown. Some paint, or point lasers to show staff members where to put color on a canvas. Some are learning to speak aloud for the first time. Each client at Open Arms communicates in a completely unique way.

Grant will help individuals with disabilities get homes (Memphis Business Journal)
United Housing Inc. and the Housing Foundation of West Tennessee received a grant from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency’s Housing Trust Fund for the purchase and renovation of 12 homes. The grant totaled $442,000 and HFWT added $1,028,000 for a grand total of $1,470,000. United Housing will find and purchase the homes for HFWT clients. United Housing will also serve as the developer on the project and will receive a 15 percent developer fee on each home from the grant money.

TBI: DUI arrests rise in city, Tennessee in 2014 (Times Free-Press/Bradbury)
More Tennesseans were arrested for driving under the influence in 2014 than 2013, according to a new annual report from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Across the state, law enforcement agents arrested 29,544 people for DUI — 639 more arrests than in 2013, according to the report, which must be submitted to the Tennessee House of Representatives and Senate each year by Feb. 1. DUI arrests also increased locally during 2014 — both Chattanooga police and the Tennessee Highway Patrol arrested more drivers in 2014 than 2013. Both departments credited a change in techniques for the jump in arrests. Police said they ramped up their focus on bar owners during 2014 to encourage them to stop serving intoxicated customers and to help heavy drinkers get home safely.

THP accepting applications for Citizens’ Trooper Academy (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Highway Patrol is accepting applications for the 2015 Citizens’ Trooper Academy in March. The academy consists of about 30 hours of training. It’s designed to develop a better understanding of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, as well as its parent agency, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Topics covered include investigations, special operations, homeland security and many other areas of the patrol.

Reward offered in shooting of bald eagle in Monroe County (Associated Press)
State and federal wildlife officials are investigating the shooting of an adult bald eagle in East Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say the eagle was found wounded around Thanksgiving in Monroe County, about 14 miles east of Vonore. The bird survived the shooting and is recovering at the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge. Bald eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, both federal wildlife statutes.

Knox woman charged with TennCare fraud (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
A Knox County woman has been charged with TennCare fraud involving “doctor shopping,” using public dollars through TennCare benefits to obtain multiple prescriptions for controlled substances. The Office of Inspector General, with assistance from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, on Tuesday announced the arrest of Sherry Lynn Pryor, 53, of Knoxville. Pryor is charged with five counts of fraudulently using TennCare to obtain controlled substances by doctor shopping. She is also charged with five counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.

Hardeman County man charged with TennCare fraud (Jackson Sun)
Ben Ervin, 35, of Bolivar has been charged with TennCare fraud involving doctor shopping, which is using TennCare to go to multiple doctors in a short time period to obtain controlled substances, according to a news release. The Office of Inspector General, in a joint investigation with the Middleton Police Department, on Tuesday announced Ervin’s arrest. He is charged in an indictment with using TennCare benefits to doctor shop for prescriptions for the painkillers Oxycodone and Tylenol-3, which has the pain reliever codeine.

Report: Woman charged with TennCare fraud (Rhea Herald News)
A Hamilton County woman is charged with TennCare fraud in Rhea County, for allegedly doctor shopping for prescription drugs using TennCare as payment, according to state officials. On Monday, the Office of Inspector General [OIG] announced the arrest of Melody Delong, 31, of Georgetown, Tenn. She is charged with visiting multiple doctors in a short period of time in an effort to obtain controlled substances. Delong turned herself in to the Rhea County Sheriff’s Department.

Supreme Court makes statute of limitations decision in Barrett case (N. Post)
The State Supreme Court has clarified the framework for statute of limitations in civil lawsuits as part of an appeal related to Barrett Firearms’ purchase of land for a plant expansion in Murfreesboro. In late 2004, Brenda Benz-Elliot signed a contract to sell five acres to Barrett for $82,500 per acre with an agreement that Benz-Elliot would retain a 60-foot wide strip to provide road access to the remainder of her property. The actual deed did not include the provision for the strip, so Benz-Elliot sued for breach of contract, intentional misrepresentation and negligent misrepresentation.

Committee leaders disagree on their review of Insure Tennessee (N-S/Locker)
The first legislative committee review of Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance plan for the working poor opened Tuesday with a disagreement between the panel’s chairman and vice chairman over the purpose of the hearing. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, read an opening statement in which he said he called the meeting to hear legal concerns about Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal, but his opening statement focused almost exclusively on its potential costs.

Debate creates fireworks at Senate committee debate on Insure Tenn. (CA/Locker)
The first legislative committee review of Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance plan for the working poor opened Tuesday with a disagreement between the panel’s chairman and vice chairman over the purpose of the hearing. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, read an opening statement in which he said that he called the meeting to hear legal concerns about Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal, but his opening statement focused almost exclusively on its potential costs.

Senate panel questions Medicaid expansion (Nashville Post)
In the first taste of the upcoming legislative debate over expanding Medicaid, a Senate committee spent three hours talking in circles about repercussions if the state pulled out of the expansion and whether the testimony was necessary. The committee, led by fervent Obamacare critic Chairman Brian Kelsey, spent most of the hearing listening to attorneys who advised the legislature to question whether the state will be penalized if it has to pull out from the expansion. “I have grave concerns Tennesseans will be left on the hook to pay for this Medicaid expansion, said Kelsey who opened up the hearing likening the governor’s proposed expansion of health care coverage to 200,000 Tennesseans to the Eagles song, “Hotel California,” where “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

Lawmakers Give Insure Tennessee Cold Shoulder at First Hearing (WPLN-Radio)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to expand Medicaid, known as Insure Tennessee, got a chilly reception during a crucial first hearing at the state legislature. A Senate panel questioned Tuesday whether the state would be bound forever to the governor’s proposal to offer health coverage to 200,000 Tennesseans if it approves the plan at a special session next week. Skeptics on the Senate Judiciary Committee set aside an opinion released earlier in the day by Attorney General Herbert Slatery that sided with the Haslam administration that Tennessee can back out if costs go up or terms change.

Bredesen-Era TennCare Lawyer Recommends Legislature Demand Final OK (TNR)
A health-policy advisor to a Democratic former governor said Tuesday that the Republican-run General Assembly should get the last word on whether to approve any deal the current governor strikes with the feds on Medicaid expansion. “Legislative oversight is a critical part of the decision whether to expand coverage under the Affordable Care Act,” James Blumstein, a constitutional law professor at Vanderbilt University, said during a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Blumstein was Gov. Phil Bredesen’s legal expert on TennCare during the program’s most tumultuous period a decade ago.

Lawmaker Wants To Restrict Subsidies To Nissan For Relying On Temps (WPLN)
A Tennessee lawmaker whose district includes Nissan’s flagship plant is trying to limit the use of temporary workers on the assembly line, which was the most productive in the U.S. last year. The legislation targets companies like Nissan that are receiving government subsidies. When a manufacturer lobbies for tax abatement deals or cash grants, it’s usually in exchange for creating a certain number of jobs. But if those are only temporary positions – which are becoming more common across the auto industry – Rep. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna) says companies shouldn’t qualify for state help.

VA completes review of Memphis center (Commercial Appeal)
The VA Office of Inspector General said the Memphis VA Medical Center has completed six recommendations and 21 are targeted for completion by March 31. The VA inspector’s office released its review of the Memphis VA on Tuesday. The review is based on an evaluation conducted in November. It led to 27 recommendations including management reviews and medication management. Six of those recommendations are considered completed, the VA said. Last year, veterans complained of long waits for appointments.

States Move to Make Citizenship Exams a Classroom Aid (New York Times)
Like high school civics students around the country, the juniors and seniors in Darcy White’s government class here will have to take a final exam. But these students — and all others in Arizona — will soon face an extra hurdle: To graduate, they will have to pass the test that is given to immigrants who want to become United States citizens, a multiple-choice exam that includes such questions as “What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?” and “What did Susan B. Anthony do?” Ms. White, for one, has reservations about the test. She already loses several days of instruction time to standardized testing, she said, and this new requirement is another intrusion.

Google expanding fiber service to 4 Southeastern metro areas (AP/Schelzig)
Google said Tuesday it has selected four metro areas in the Southeast to receive its fiber optic service that can deliver Internet speeds at more than 50 times the national broadband average. The company said it will bring gigabit-speed service to Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; and Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte in North Carolina. Google officials said five Western cities previously identified as finalists remain in the running for fiber down the line. “We had four cities here in the Southeast that were ready to go,” said Kevin Lo, Google’s general manager for fiber services.

Google officially announces Fiber for Nashville (Nashville Post)
Google Fiber is coming to Nashville. A spokesperson said in an official statement that the fiber-optic network will begin preparing to offer the service in Nashville neighborhoods this year. Additionally, Google Fiber is expanding to Atlanta, Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. “I am happy to announce that after almost a year of participation, Google Fiber is coming to Nashville,” said Mayor Karl Dean. “There was a lot of competition, and I think they’ve made a very wise choice,” he added. Kevin Lo, director of business operations for Google Fiber, said “it was clear throughout this joint planning process that getting gigabit internet to Nashville is a big priority.”

Google Fiber excites Nashville with possibilities (Tennessean/McGee)
When Nashville tech leaders share ideas of what Google Fiber could lead to in Nashville, they point to progress in online learning, software programming, workforce development, health care and entrepreneurship. Along with that, there are many unknown possibilities. “There are so many things we haven’t even really thought about because it hasn’t been possible up until now,” said Marcus Whitney, president of business incubator Jumpstart Foundry. “Now that we know we can throw around gigabytes within seconds and minutes, it’s going to completely change the way we think about using the Internet.”

Google Fiber: ‘A tribute to Nashville,’ a ‘great thing’ an​​​d ‘just the beginning’ (NBJ)
The room was packed at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center Tuesday afternoon for the long-expected and greatly speculated-about announcement: Google Fiber is coming to Nashville. Backed by a bright blue banner sporting an outline of the Nashville skyline and proclaiming the news, Mayor Karl Dean made the official announcement to the crowd of media folks, Metro officials, tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. “I am happy to announce that after almost a year of anticipation, Google Fiber is coming to Nashville,” Dean said, eliciting boisterous applause.

Will Google Fiber Bring Benefits Beyond High-Speed Internet? (WPLN-Radio)
A few minutes before noon Tuesday at Nashville’s Entrepreneur Center, a wall partition lifted and revealed a sign on stage: “Nashville, Fiber is coming.” Google Fiber’s long-anticipated announcement brought a flurry of excitement from Nashville entrepreneurs, who hope it could thrust the city’s technology industry into the spotlight. Google Fiber enthusiast Mark Montgomery, who founded a music tech company, predicts the announcement will bring more than just the fast internet. “Google has a tendency to invest in a market. If they like the results they get, they invest further,” he says. “So this is the beginning, I think, of the next level of engagement of this obviously enormous global presence.” Down the hall in the Entrepreneur Center, Jared Barrett, vice president of a healthcare technology startup, says the development is also likely to bring more investors in general.

Nashville school board members fear budget won’t be enough (Tenn/Gonzalez)
The understanding that Metro Schools’ enrollment next school year will grow sparked an hourlong conversation during a Tuesday Board of Education meeting centered on fears about the district’s budget. Every year, Metro Council dishes out the majority of the system’s budget. From that money, the school district seeks to pay $9,000 per each student’s education. Ever-growing student numbers mean a possible dip in how much the district can pay for that education. Charter school enrollment alone is projected to grow by 3,000 students next year.

School board accepts Memphis’ settlement offer (Commercial Appeal/Roberts)
The school board voted Tuesday night to accept the terms of the settlement with the city of Memphis, closing a chapter on the $57 million debt that has confounded it since 2008. “I would like to commend this board for showing very strong leadership,” said Supt. Dorsey Hopson. “If both sides are walking away a little upset, it’s a sign it is probably a good deal.” The deal is worth a total of $41 million, including services of 25 Memphis Police officers in the schools through the end of 2015-16 school year.


Editorial: Legislation should beef up FOIA on public subsidies (News-Sentinel)
When the Tennessee Valley Authority refused at the end of last year to release information about the incentive package it gave a Clinton auto parts manufacturer, U.S. Reps. John J. Duncan Jr. and Chuck Fleischmann commendably blasted the utility for a lack of transparency. The Republican lawmakers could do the citizens of the country an even greater service by proposing to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act to prevent agencies from shielding subsidies from public scrutiny.