January 30 TN News Digest

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

Haslam rallies support for health insurance plan in Johnson City stop (H-C)
Insure Tennessee is not Obamacare. That was the clear message from Gov. Bill Haslam Thursday, when he continued trying to rally support for a program designed to provide health insurance for the state’s working poor. He spoke during an event at the ETSU Community Health Center. “Most people in Tennessee don’t want Obamacare and — even though we would be using those federal dollars — this is a very different program,” Haslam said. “We are addressing costs in a way that the Affordable Care Act doesn’t. That’s critical. We’ve surveyed a lot of people across the state and most understand the difference between Obamacare and our program. But it is still a big issue.”

Haslam visits Johnson City to answer Insure Tennessee questions (WCYB-TV)
Next week the Tennessee state legislature will gavel in on a special session to discuss healthcare in the Volunteer State. At stake is nearly $1 billion in health coverage for Tennessee’s under and uninsured. Governor Bill Haslam stopped in Johnson City Thursday morning to answer questions and explain his response to the Affordable Care Act, known as Insure Tennessee. Governor Haslam acknowledged that healthcare is one of the most complicated topics facing Tennessee and the nation as a whole, but he said that shouldn’t get in the way covering as many people as possible with health insurance. He wants to use money that’s already out there to pay for that insurance.

Gov. Haslam promotes “Insure Tennessee” in Johnson City (WJHL-TV J. City)
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam stopped in Johnson City Thursday to promote “Insure Tennessee,” his plan to provide insurance to hundreds of thousands of low income Tennesseans. Nearly 32,000 people in our region would qualify for this plan, funded by federal dollars from the Affordable Care Act. Thursday, Haslam detailed his plan to local health professionals and state representatives. But some said there are still quite a few unanswered questions. I reached out to local state representatives to find out how they would vote on this plan if they had to Thursday.

Haslam makes stop in Johnson City to push Medicaid expansion plan (JCP)
On a tip-to-tail tour of Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam stopped in Johnson City on Thursday to tout his iteration of a plan to expand Medicaid to cover 200,000 more state residents. Speaking with area state legislators and health care professionals in a meeting at the Johnson City Community Health Center, the governor once more described his two-part Insure Tennessee plan four days before the General Assembly will meet in special session to debate its merits.

Governor pitches his Insure Tennessee proposal at Hope Clinic (DNJ)
Gov. Bill Haslam touted his Insure Tennessee proposal today at Primary Care and Hope Clinic to provide health coverage for an estimated 285,000 residents. The Republican governor told a room that included about eight Tennessee General Assembly lawmakers and health-care professionals that his proposal will go beyond the concept of using federal Medicaid funding through the Affordable Care Act to provide free health care service. Haslam said his proposal will include incentives for patients and health-care providers to make good choices, such as avoiding the use of an emergency room for non emergency care.

Lawmakers Hear Stories of Uninsured As Haslam Wraps Up Insure TN Tour (WPLN)
Janet Lowe knows firsthand what it’s like to treat people with life-threatening conditions and no money. The nurse practitioner at the Hope Clinic in Murfreesboro tried to share that perspective with state lawmakers on Thursday, as Governor Bill Haslam wrapped up a tour to promote his Insure Tennessee health care proposal. “In some cases, it’s almost like telling my immediate family member, in essence, you are going to die because there’s nothing else that I can do for you,” she said. “So imagine telling that to somebody who you are very close to.” Seven lawmakers, all Republicans from Middle Tennessee, took part in an hour-long session led by Haslam.

Local leaders sign on to support Insure Tennessee (Times Free-Press)
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond is among a handful of local Republicans lining up to support Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan to provide health coverage to low-income state residents. Former county GOP chairwoman Connie Weathers; current party treasurer George Jackson and current Nightside Pachyderm Club chairman John Shackleford’s names were among the 100 listed in a news release. So were those of former Chattanooga Councilwoman Marti Rutherford and local activities Mills Waterhouse and Kurt Faires; Republican Executive Committee members Bill and June Landrum of Monroe County; Monroe GOP Chairman Lowell Russell and former Coffee County GOP Chairman John Roberts.

Insure Tennessee picks up GOP Senate sponsor (Times Free-Press/Sher)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam announced Thursday he now has a GOP state Senate sponsor for his Insure Tennessee proposal after state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, balked at carrying the measure. Haslam told reporters in Murfreesboro that Sen. Doug Overbey of Collierville will sponsor the resolution, which the GOP-dominated General Assembly will consider in a special session that begins Monday. The governor’s announcement came as he wrapped up a statewide tour in Murfreesboro promoting what he calls his “market-driven” plan to extend health insurance coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Governor: Overbey Sponsoring ‘Insure Tennessee’ in Senate (TN Report)
Gov. Bill Haslam has announced that Doug Overbey, a liberal east Tennessee Republican, will sponsor the administration’s Medicaid expansion proposal in the state Senate next week. The governor made the announcement in Murfreesboro after finishing up the last of nine Medicaid expansion-related meetings with lawmakers across the state that he’s called the last several days. Haslam has been trying to reassure reluctant Republican legislators that his proposal to use federal funding through the Affordable Care Act to fund a new program called “Insure Tennessee” makes good policy sense, and won’t over time start eating further into the state’s budget.

Source: Democratic support for Haslam plan not unanimous (Tenn/Boucher)
The majority of Democratic lawmakers in the House support Gov. Bill Haslam’s controversial plan to extend health care benefits, but that support is not unanimous, according to a new vote count Thursday. At least “two or three” of the 26 House Democrats are still on the fence as to whether they’ll support Haslam’s Insure Tennessee, said a senior Democrat familiar with the vote count. While none of the House Democrats have definitively said they’ll oppose the governor’s plan, the source said the caucus decided in a Thursday meeting it wanted to show its support because Democrats believe advocates are taking a “hands-off” approach to campaigning for the plan.

Will “Insure Tennessee” get enough support from Republican lawmakers? (WJHL)
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s statewide tour to tout a plan to provide health insurance to more than 200,000 low-income Tennesseans made a stop in the Tri-Cities Thursday. Governor Haslam detailed his plan, called “Insure Tennessee” to local health professionals at a meeting in Johnson City. But the question remains, does the governor have enough backing to get his plan passed, even from members of his own party? The majority of local representatives say they’re not sold on the governor’s plan.

Haslam wraps up Insure Tennessee tour, names Senate sponsor (AP/Schelzig)
Gov. Bill Haslam has finally found a Senate sponsor for his Insure Tennessee proposal just days before the start of a special legislative session to take up the matter. Haslam said Thursday that Republican Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville agreed to carry the measure after Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville declined his usual role of handling the governor’s legislation. 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.

Tennesseans urged not to drink and drive Super Bowl weekend (A. Press)
State officials are joining the Tennessee Titans in urging folks to not drink and drive Super Bowl weekend. The Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, the Franklin Police Department and the Tennessee Highway Patrol will join the Titans at an event at the Franklin Police headquarters on Friday. Their unified message: Fans don’t let fans drive drunk this Super Bowl Sunday. They will be joined by Stephen and Kimberly Schlapman who lost their brother, Allen Schlapman, to a drunk driver in 2012.

Davidson sees unemployment rate dip to 5.1% (Nashville Post)
Davidson County saw an unemployment rate of 5.1 percent in December, down from 5.2 percent in November. According to statistics the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development released today, Knox County (Knoxville) registered the lowest December unemployment rate (5 percent) of the state’s four major metropolitan areas. For context, Knox County recorded a 5.4 percent mark in September and has had the lowest rate compared to the state’s other three major counties since then. For December, Hamilton County (Chattanooga) had a December rate of 6.4 percent rate, unchanged from the November mark. The Shelby County (Memphis) rate was 8.1 percent, also unchanged from the November figure.

Nashville’s unemployment rate falls in 2014 (Nashville Business Journal)
All but one county in the Nashville metropolitan statistical area witnessed a decline in its unemployment rate last year. As a whole, Middle Tennessee’s counties continue to post among the lowest jobless rates in the state. In 2014, Davidson County’s unemployment rate fell from 5.6 percent to 5.1 percent in December, according to a report released Thursday by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. That ranks as the eighth-lowest jobless rate in the state among 93 counties.

Six Middle TN counties have lowest unemployment rates (Tennessean/Barnes)
Out of 95 counties in Tennessee, six Middle Tennessee counties, including Davidson, have the lowest unemployment rates in the state. Davidson, Williamson, Wilson, Sumner, Robertson and Rutherford counties have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. Within the top 10 lowest rate rankings in order from greatest to least, Robertson is ranked tenth lowest at 5.2 percent. Davidson has the eighth lowest at 5.1 percent. Sumner is the fifth lowest at 5 percent. Wilson and Rutherford technically tie for third and fourth place at 4.7 percent. Williamson has the lowest among all six at 4.4 percent and ranked second lowest on the list, yet ties with Lincoln County, which is ranked the lowest in the state.

Memphis unemployment rate flatlines in December (Memphis Business Journal)
The Memphis area unemployment rate didn’t move in December, according to figures released by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce development. It’s the second straight month in which the seasonally adjusted rate unemployment rate in the Memphis area, including sections of North Mississippi, Eastern Arkansas and Shelby County, was mostly unchanged. The current unemployment rate is at 7.6 percent, unchanged from November and up just .01 percent from October’s revised rate of 7.5 percent. Shelby County’s rate remains at 8.1 percent while Tipton County’s rate increased to 8.8 percent from 8.5 percent in November.

Memphis area jobless rate drops to 7.6% (Commercial Appeal/Evanoff)
Greater Memphis gained jobs during the holiday hiring season, but fewer people were employed, partly because tens of thousands of residents worked two or more jobs. The trend was revealed Thursday in a pair of government labor market reports. One report shows the unemployment rate for the nine-county metropolitan area eased to 7.6 percent last month, Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development said. While the rate came down, households surveyed by government labor monitors reported about 6,100 fewer people were working in December compared to a year ago.

Jobless Rates for Memphis, Shelby County Drop (Memphis Daily News)
The unemployment rates for Shelby County and the city of Memphis both fell by about a percentage point in December, according to new figures out today from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Preliminary employment totals for Shelby County for last month show an 8.1 percent jobless rate for the county, with a labor force of 412,270 and an unemployed population of 33,230. That jobless rate is down 1 percent from the 9.1 percent rate in December 2013. In Memphis, meanwhile, the jobless rate in December stood at 9 percent, preliminary figures show.

Job markets improve in greater Chattanooga area (Times Free-Press/Flessner)
As owner of Manpower staffing offices in Chattanooga, Cleveland and Dalton, Mark Campbell is on the front line of fighting for jobs — and workers — as the economy rebounds in the fourth year of the economic recovery. “Our job orders are up 20 percent from a year ago, which was 20 percent better than the year before that,” Campbell said Thursday. “It looks like 2015 is going to be a strong year — if we can keep up with the demand and find enough qualified workers.” The improving economy helped cut the jobless rate over the past year by six-tenths of a percentage point in metropolitan Chattanooga and eight tenths of a percentage point in neighboring metro Cleveland, Tenn.

Knox man charged with TennCare fraud (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
A Knox County man is charged with TennCare fraud involving doctor shopping, which involves using the state health care program benefits to obtain prescriptions for controlled substances. The Office of Inspector General, with the assistance of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, on Thursday announced the arrest of Eddie J. Hammond, 51, of Knoxville. Hammond is charged with three counts of fraudulently using TennCare by visiting multiple doctors in a short period of time to obtain controlled substances. TennCare fraud is a Class E felony, carrying a sentence of up to two years in prison.

Tennessee lawmakers ask Congress to keep feds out of schools (AP/Johnson)
Tennessee lawmakers are turning to the federal government for help with a task that might seem self-contradictory: keeping the federal government at bay. In one of several efforts to push back against what they see as federal overreach, Republican state lawmakers are pushing a resolution asking Congress, with its new Republican majority in the Senate as well as the House, to help put the brakes on Common Core education standards. “Basically, it sends a message from the state of Tennessee that we do not want the dictation from the feds down to us,” said state Sen. Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican and co-sponsor of the measure.

Rep. Jason Powell wants your bill suggestions (Tennessean/Allison)
Much like the suggestion boxes incorporated by area businesses, Rep. Jason Powell is applying the concept to lawmaking. On Thursday, Powell launched the site MyTnIdea.com to collect suggestions for bills from the public to present to the General Assembly. According to a release from Powell’s office, the thought behind the idea was to increase public participation in government while trying to pass legislation that would improve the state. All suggestions will be read and considered “no matter if it is from a Democrat, Republican, independent or tea partier,” the District 53 representative said in the release.

Educators, legislators confer on bills (Daily News Journal)
Nearly two dozen Rutherford County teachers Thursday night both showed support for and sparred with several of the county’s state legislators about how to handle pressing education issues. Members of the Tennessee Education Assocation, Rutherford Education Association and Murfreesboro Education Association met with State Sens. Bill Ketron and Jim Tracy and State Reps. Dawn White and Mike Sparks as part of an annual question-and-answer session near the start of the Tennessee General Assembly. The lawmakers showed a range of perspectives after they arrived at Overall Creek Elementary School off of U.S. Highway 96.

Memphis hospitals prepare for Medicare reform (Commercial Appeal/McKenzie)
Hospitals, doctors and others in the Memphis health care industry have been preparing for the day when they’ll get paid based on the quality and value of the care they provide, rather than service fees that can stack up. U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell now says that day will arrive by next year, when the federal government will base 30 percent of its Medicare payments on quality and cost. That will rise to 50 percent by 2018, Burwell revealed on Monday. If divided among every resident of Shelby County, Medicare in 2012 cost $10,080 per person, or almost $9.5 billion, federal data shows.

DOE approves $121M extension of ORNL-led virtual reactor project (N-S/Munger)
Over the past five years, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its partners have developed and tested advanced computing techniques for simulating the internal operations of a nuclear reactor, in essence creating a virtual reactor. The work to date has reportedly been a success, and the U.S. Department of Energy plans to renew funding — $121.5 million spread over the next five years — and expand the work of the ORNL-based Consortium for the Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, known as CASL. The funding extension is subject to Congressional approval annually.

Target fulfillment center proceeding (Memphis Business Journal)
A Shelby County building permit was issued this week for the site of the new Target Corp. online fulfillment center in Southeast Memphis. Valued at $42 million, the permit was pulled for “commercial alteration” to the 900,000-square-foot building located at 5461 Davidson Road. The development was announced in December. The Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis and Shelby County approved a 15-year PILOT for the facility on Dec. 17, 2014. Target (NYSE:TGT) will receive $12 million in tax breaks and pay a projected $27.2 million in taxes for a benefit/cost ratio of $2.24 for every $1.00 of abated taxes.

Hemlock parent loses $500M through Clarksville plant closure (Leaf Chronicle)
The loss of Hemlock Semiconductor of Clarksville, monetarily speaking, represents a sizable chunk of the budget for its corporate parent — yet corporate officers say 2014 was a good year overall on the balance sheet. Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co., in its fourth-quarter and full-year financial results, has reported a $500 million corporate loss related to Dow Corning’s permanent abandonment of the Hemlock polycrystalline silicon manufacturing plant in Clarksville. Even with that half-billion-dollar loss, Andrew N. Liveris, Dow’s chairman and chief executive officer, said Dow “achieved a record end to a strong year” overall.

AG’s opinion gives Erlanger another bonus dilemma (Times Free-Press/Belz)
The status of $1.7 million in bonuses paid out to Erlanger Health System’s management has again been called into question, as a new opinion issued by the state’s attorney general has local lawmakers calling for the money to be paid back. Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III’s opinion, issued Wednesday, states that Tennessee law does not permit hospitals such as Erlanger to meet in a closed session to discuss bonuses or salaries. While the opinion does not specifically reference Erlanger, Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, said it proves Erlanger’s public hospital board “clearly violated the law” in the process it used to approve executive bonuses for year-end performance — half of which of have already been paid out.

OPINION

Times Editorial: Erlanger’s stealth moves rightly bring rebukes (Times Free-Press)
It’s rare that public officials side with journalists and citizens on the issue of transparency and open meetings. We mean really side with us — not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk. But in the case of Erlanger hospital’s board of trustees meeting in a closed session to discuss executive bonuses and salaries, Hamilton County’s legislative delegation not only stepped up, they took the lead. And with their juice, we the people won. State Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, some weeks ago asked Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III to issue a formal opinion on the legality of the closed meeting, which Erlanger executives and trustees had maintained did not violate the state’s open meetings law because “no deliberations took place” about Erlanger Health System’s incentive plan.

Free-Press Editorial: Attorney general weighs in on meetings (Times Free-Press)
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III dirtied the shine on the $1.7 million in bonuses Erlanger Health System trustees decided in December to give hospital executives with his opinion Wednesday that the meeting in which the bonuses were discussed should have been an open and not a closed meeting. State law, the opinion said, “would not permit the board of a public hospital that is subject to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act and Tennessee Public Records Act to meet in closed session to discuss executive compensation and executive bonuses.”