January 29 TN News Digest

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

Denso revs up 400 new auto positions in Athens (Times Free-Press/Pare)
Southeast Tennessee’s automotive cluster received an economic jolt Wednesday when Denso Manufacturing unveiled plans to hire 400 more workers and invest $85 million into its plant here. McMinn County Mayor John Gentry quipped that the next edition of the county’s history likely will include the Japanese company, which already employs more than 1,450 people at the plant. “The future of the community has been increasingly linked to Denso,” he said. Gov. Bill Haslam said Tennessee has a lot at stake in the auto industry with its car makers and their suppliers.

Leading automotive supplier to expand in McMinn County (Associated Press)
A leading global automotive supplier plans to build a new facility in McMinn County that’s expected to create as many as 400 new jobs. Gov. Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd announced this week that DENSO Manufacturing will build the new 224,000-square-foot facility at its existing location in Athens. The Japan-based company is a leading supplier of advanced technology, systems and components in the areas of thermal, powertrain control, electronics and information and safety.

Haslam wrapping up statewide Insure Tennessee tour today (Associated Press)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is wrapping up his statewide tour today seeking to drum up support for his Insure Tennessee proposal. Haslam begins the day in Johnson City, followed by stops in Sparta and Murfreesboro. The governor earlier visited hospitals in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Memphis and Jackson to discuss his proposal. The state Legislature goes into special session Monday to take up the proposal that has been met with some skepticism among Republicans because it would draw down $1.4 billion per year in federal money available under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Haslam Pitching Medicaid Expansion Plan Across TN (TN Report)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is touring the state touting his plan for accessing a massive new influx of federal Medicaid funding through the Affordable Care Act. The Republican governor has negotiated a preliminary deal with the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services department to pay for a two-pronged, two-year pilot program to provide more people in Tennessee with government-financed health coverage. Haslam is meeting with lawmakers around the state to try and convince them his “Insure Tennessee” program is affordable to the state and makes sound policy sense. That might be a tough sell in the Tennessee Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans who for years have publicly criticized Obamacare as an unprecedented, unaffordable overreach of federal power.

Gov. Bill Haslam pitches Insure Tennessee to Chattanooga-area lawmakers (Nooga)
Gov. Bill Haslam was in Chattanooga Wednesday to pitch his Medicaid proposal to area lawmakers. The governor has made nine stops in the past week to walk through the particulars of his Insure Tennessee plan, field questions from legislators and prepare for the special session starting Feb. 2 when the Tennessee Legislature begins committee hearings. During the hourlong meeting, the governor focused more on the 200,000 uninsured state residents who could be covered under the plan than the federal health law it’s associated with.

Haslam’s office makes direct pitch to lawmakers on Insure Tennessee (NBJ)
Gov. Bill Haslam has been canvassing Tennessee for the past week promoting his Insure Tennessee proposal. On Wednesday, members of his office and TennCare officials directly pitched the plan to lawmakers, who will take up the matter during a special session beginning next Monday. During the information session, attended by lawmakers from both the House and Senate, Haslam’s Chief of Staff Mark Cate said Insure Tennessee “is a plan that is market-based and promotes more personal responsibility.” Cate attempted to distance the plan from expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, stating that the federal law’s “purpose was right, but the approach was wrong.”

Haslam Medicaid plan faces long odds in House committee (Tennessean/Boucher)
A House committee stacked with conservative lawmakers could bury Gov Bill Haslam’s controversial health care plan early in next week’s special session. House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, already announced she will send Insure Tennessee — Haslam’s plan to extend federally subsidized health coverage to 200,000 Tennesseans — to three committees during the special session. Those committees are Insurance and Banking, Health and Finances, Ways and Means. Two leading Republicans in the House say there’s a very good chance that the proposal won’t survive the Insurance and Banking Committee. “I think the bill will be OK in Finance. I think it’s a toss-up in Health,” said House Majority Whip Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, who is on the Banking and Insurance Committee. “I think Insurance and Banking is the biggest roadblock to the bill. I really don’t see how it could get out of there.”

5 takeaways from Insure Tennessee presentation (Tennessean/Boucher)
As Gov. Bill Haslam remains on the road to pitch his controversial plan to expand health benefits, his administration presented its own sales pitch to lawmakers Wednesday afternoon. Here are five takeaways from the presentation: 1. Haslam’s administration wants to focus on the basics Health care policy is complicated, and the ever-consistent influence on politics can only muddy the waters further. So Haslam’s chief of staff, Mark Cate, and other administration officials have fine-tuned their pitch: Insure Tennessee won’t cost the state a dime while providing hundreds of thousands of people with new coverage using “conservative” principles.

Haslam Administration “Still Optimistic” Insure Tenn Health Plan Can Pass (WPLN)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration took its charm offensive to the state legislature Wednesday, with a session aimed at convincing reluctant lawmakers to take the “courageous step” of supporting his Insure Tennessee health care plan. Over boxed lunches, aides to the Republican governor urged several dozen lawmakers to set aside their opposition to health care reform and get behind a program that could benefit thousands of working Tennesseans. The pitch came as Haslam continued a barnstorming tour that has taken him to many hospitals and clinics serving many of their constituents. Rural lawmakers, like Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan, seemed to be the most receptive.

Lawmakers offer tepid response to Insure Tennessee (Nashville Post)
Members of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration were met with a mixed response to his Insure Tennessee plan Wednesday, gearing up for the Medicaid expansion special session that begins next week. Chief of Staff Mark Cate and TennCare Medical Director Dr. Wendy Long fielded most of the questions from lawmakers at a lunchtime hearing, where questions focused on Affordable Care Act uncertainties and whether the state could afford to expand coverage. “This is a partnership with the federal government, and there are a lot of people who don’t trust the federal government,” Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville said. “Even things set in law change.”

Chattanooga area lawmakers grill Haslam on Insure Tennessee (TFP/Sher, Belz)
From insurance co-pays to the reliability of the federal government, local lawmakers had plenty of ground they wanted Gov. Bill Haslam to cover Wednesday during an hourlong meeting in Chattanooga about his proposed Insure Tennessee plan. Legislators peppered the governor with questions, and some struck a skeptical tone. But Haslam expected as much, he said after the meeting. “Health care, first of all, is a complex subject. And because it’s tied in some people’s minds to Obamacare it becomes very politically contentious,” he said.

Revised Projections Say Insure Tennessee Would Cover 280,000 (AP/Schelzig)
Projections for enrollment in Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to cover low-income Tennesseans have been revised upward to 280,000 people in the first year. Haslam’s chief of staff, Mark Cate, said Wednesday that new number reflects an actuarial study and comparisons with Medicaid programs in other states. The original estimates for the Insure Tennessee plan had pegged the expected enrollment at 200,000 or below. Cate says while the enrollment projections have gone up, the estimated cost per enrollee has gone down enough to keep cost expectations at their original level.

Bigger enrollment seen for Insure Tennessee (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)
New figures now project an estimated 280,000 low-income Tennesseans would initially qualify to enroll in Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed Insure Tennessee program, 40 percent more than original projections. Administration officials released the revised figures Wednesday in a presentation ahead of a special session next week for state legislators to debate Haslam’s proposal for a two-year pilot project. Meanwhile, a TennCare-commissioned actuarial study estimates the program’s costs in the first six months beginning Jan. 1, 2016, would be $664.28 million. All costs during that period would be borne by the federal government under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Group to examine Tennessee sentencing laws, recidivism (Associated Press)
A task force formed by Gov. Bill Haslam meets Thursday in Nashville to examine Tennessee’s sentencing structure and examine ways to reduce the state’s high recidivism rate. It’s the group’s third meeting since being formed by Haslam last year in an overall effort to reduce crime and improve public safety. The task force will develop recommendations to give to the Governor’s Public Safety Subcabinet by June. The subcabinet has partnered with the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, which is helping to review sentencing and correction policies and practices in Tennessee.

Proposed budget cuts could hurt disability services (News-Sentinel/Nelson)
Around 25 years ago, Linda Bacon made the gut-wrenching decision to move her daughter, Page, into a group home operated by what is now Open Arms Care. Bacon worried that no one could care for Page as well as she did. But she needed to work, and Page, then 17, needed full-time medical supervision. Born with cerebral palsy, Page, 42, is nonverbal and uses a wheelchair. She also has a serious lung condition and a tracheotomy, and she frequently needs suctioning. These days, Bacon worries about her daughter for an entirely different reason.

4 Williamson women face TennCare fraud charges (Tennessean/Barnes)
Four Williamson County women are facing TennCare fraud charges after they sold prescription drugs to an undercover agent, according to an Office of Inspector General news release. Columbia resident Cynthia L. Fewell, 37, and Fairview residents Amanda M. Usery, 29, Carolyn Pope, 24, and Kelcey A. Dowdy, 21, sold Suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, to an undercover agent, the IOG said. The IOG said the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office played a crucial role in the investigation that led to the arrests.

Up to Six Million Households Facing Penalty for Skipping Health Insurance (WSJ)
The U.S. government estimates as many as six million households may have to pay a penalty for not having had health-insurance coverage last year as required under the Affordable Care Act, officials said Wednesday. About 150 million taxpayers are expected to file returns during the coming tax season, said Mark Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury Department. The tax-filing process this year is expected to be trickier because Americans will, in some cases, have to pay a penalty or get smaller refunds because credits they received to offset insurance premiums were too large.

Dirty and degraded Y-12 facility tops high-risk list (News-Sentinel/Munger)
The U.S. Department of Energy’s inspector general has identified more than 200 high-risk buildings that are contaminated and deteriorated with no definitive timetable for cleanup, and the “worst of the worst” is at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge. The audit report released Wednesday by Inspector General Gregory Friedman found serious weaknesses in the DOE’s efforts to deal with the old facilities — some of which have been out of operation for decades — that are loaded with radioactive and hazardous materials and are gradually falling apart. The schedule for turning the facilities over to the DOE’s Environmental Management Program for cleanup is getting stretched and delayed, the report said, noting many of the dirty and degraded facilities won’t be designated for cleanup until 2025 — or possibly even a decade later.

Settlement Could Fund I-Zone Schools (Memphis Daily News)
With federal money about to run out for the Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone schools, the $8 million in cash due from the city of Memphis next month is most likely to land in the bank account for that effort. The payment is the first part of the $41.8 million settlement of a six-year-old court fight over the Memphis City Council’s decision in 2008 to cut city funding to the then-Memphis City Schools. The school system sued the city over the funding cut, claiming it violated state law, and won at the trial court as well as on appeal. But the city filed a counterclaim setting the stage for the prolonged dispute.

TeamHealth to add 450 jobs in Blount County (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
A fast-growing East Tennessee health company plans to build a new facility in Blount County in a move that will create 450 jobs. TeamHealth announced Wednesday that it will invest $16.8 million to build a 40,000-square foot office that will be expandable later to 70,000 square feet. The company said it will relocate its Healthcare Financial Services anesthesia operations to the new facility by August. That segment of the company provides coding and billing for patients seen in TeamHealth’s client hospitals. TeamHealth is based in Knoxville, but has an existing facility at Base Pointe Business Park, where it occupies 52,500 square feet. It also has a location in Alcoa, Tenn., that serves regional emergency medicine operations.

TeamHealth to create 450 jobs in Blount County (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
A fast-growing Knoxville health company plans to build a new facility in Blount County, in a move that will create 450 jobs. TeamHealth said it will build a 40,000-square foot location at 3231 North Star Circle, in Louisville’s Base Pointe Business Park, but that facility will be expandable to 70,000 square feet. The project represents a $16.8 million investment. The company said it will relocate its Healthcare Financial Services anesthesia operations to the new facility by August 2015. That segment of the company provides coding and billing for patients seen in TeamHealth’s client hospitals.

OPINION

Guest Columnist: Insure Tennessee vital to rural areas (Times Free-Press)
Keeping rural communities viable and strong is crucial to our state’s health and well-being. Insure Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to provide expanded health insurance coverage to more than 200,000 Tennesseans whose annual income is below the federal poverty level, will not only keep Tennesseans healthy, it will ensure our rural communities continue to thrive. On behalf of LifePoint Hospitals’ 10 community hospitals in Tennessee and the Coalition for a Healthy Tennessee, I applaud the governor for his foresight and leadership in bringing this innovative proposal to the table. Insure Tennessee will provide continued access to the right care at the right time, close to home for those who reside in rural communities.

Editorial: Higher education faces broken promise (Daily News Journal)
Although Gov. Bill Haslam is intent on getting as many people as possible enrolled in post-secondary education classes, this effort has not meshed with inadequate funding for post-secondary education in the state. While Haslam’s Tennessee Promise initiative will use funds from lottery reserves to pay the expense of tuition and fees that other financial aid does not pay, as Rutherford County school officials learned a long time ago, school facilities and services are not really incremental. You can’t build a fourth or a half of a classroom or another school facility necessary to provide educational services to increasing enrollments.

Editorial: Don’t balance the budget on backs of most vulnerable (News-Sentinel)
Gov. Bill Haslam is not expected to offer his budget proposal for the next fiscal year until after the special session on Insure Tennessee that begins on Monday, but many across the state already are nervous about its possible effects. The governor has asked commissioners to prepare departmental budgets containing cuts of 7 percent. Administration officials emphasized that the pared-down budget proposals would be worst-case scenarios, but until the governor sends his recommendation to the Legislature, uncertainty prevails. Across-the-board cuts sound fair — every department and program shares in the pain. But the reality is that some departments and programs are more important than others, and should be spared a trip to the chopping block.